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Language, gesture and Sylvester the Cat

Press release issued: 12 September 2003

Speakers of different languages don't just describe the world differently, they think about it differently too, according to a new study carried out at Bristol University - with a little help from a cartoon cat.

- New research from Bristol University at The BA Festival of Science -

Speakers of different languages don’t just describe the world differently, they think about it differently too, according to a new study carried out at Bristol University – with a little help from a cartoon cat.

Dr Sotaro Kita of the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology asked a group of native English, Japanese and Turkish speakers to watch a cartoon featuring the black and white cat, Sylvester and his elusive prey, Tweetie-Pie.  He then asked them to describe the action and observed any gestures they made while speaking.

Dr Kita found that the speakers of the three different languages used different gestures to depict the same event, and that these gestures appeared to reflect the way in which the structure of their languages expressed that event.  His research will be the subject of a lecture next Friday [September 12] at the British Association Festival of Science.

The participants first described a scene in which Sylvester swings across a street on a rope to catch Tweetie.  They used two types of gesture while speaking: ‘arc gestures’ which depicted the arc trajectory, and ‘straight gestures’ which depicted motion without showing the arc trajectory.  The English speakers predominantly used arc gestures, while the Japanese and Turkish speakers tended to use straight gestures.  

Dr Kita suggests that this is because Japanese and Turkish have no verb that corresponds to the English intransitive verb ‘to swing’.  While English speakers use the arc gesture as their language can readily express the change of location and the arc-shaped trajectory, Japanese and Turkish speakers cannot as easily express the concept of movement with an arc trajectory so they use the straight gesture.

The participants then described a scene in which Sylvester, having swallowed a bowling ball, rolls down a street.  In this case, the Japanese and Turkish speakers were more likely to use ‘manner-only gestures’ (depicting  rotation without change of location) or ‘trajectory-only gestures’ (depicting change of location without rotation) than the English speakers who tended to favour gestures that depicted both rotation and change of location together.

Again, Dr Kita argues that these gestural differences can be explained by linguistic differences.  English can express both the manner (‘rolls’) and trajectory (‘down’) of Sylvester’s movements with a concise expression involving only one verb: “he rolls down the street”.  Japanese and Turkish, however, require a more complex expression involving two verbs: “he descends as he rolls”.  This indicates that English speakers may tend to think about manner and trajectory simultaneously while Japanese and Turkish speakers may tend to think about them separately.

Dr Kita said: “My research suggests that speakers of different languages generate different spatial images of the same event in a way that matches the expressive possibilities of their particular language.  In other words, language influences spatial thinking at the moment of speaking.“

Dr Kita’s lecture, What gesture can tell us about the effect of language on imagery, will be delivered at 10.30am on Friday, September 12 in Lecture Theatre 5, Chapman Building, University of Salford. 

The BA Festival of Science is the UK's largest science festival, attracting over 300 speakers and around 10,000 visitors and has been taking place since 1831. The BA Festival of Science 2003 takes place from 8 - 12 September at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester in association with Northwest Science.

The BA is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation dedicated to connecting science with people, so that science and its applications become accessible to all.  The BA aims to promote openness about science in society and to engage and inspire people directly with science and technology and their implications.

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