Frontiers reaches 6.4 on Journal Impact Factors

This article is part of the Research Topic

Visual Language

Review ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Commun. | doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2018.00023

The palm-up puzzle: Meanings and origins of a widespread form in gesture and sign

  • 1Psychology, University of Chicago, United States
  • 2Psychology, Northwestern University, United States
  • 3Linguistics, University of Michigan, United States

During communication, speakers commonly rotate their forearms so that their palms turn upward. Yet despite more than a century of observations of such palm-up gestures, their meanings and origins have proven difficult to pin down. We distinguish two gestures within the palm-up form family: the palm-up presentational and the palm-up epistemic. The latter is a term we introduce to refer to a variant of the palm-up that prototypically involves lateral separation of the hands. This gesture—our focus—is used in speaking communities around the world to express a recurring set of epistemic meanings, several of which seem quite distinct. More striking, a similar palm-up form is used to express the same set of meanings in many established sign languages and in emerging sign systems. Such observations present a two-part puzzle: the first part is how this set of seemingly distinct meanings for the palm-up epistemic are related, if indeed they are; the second is why the palm-up form is so widely used to express just this set of meanings. We propose a network connecting the different attested meanings of the palm-up epistemic, with a kernel meaning of absence of knowledge, and discuss how this proposal could be evaluated through additional developmental, corpus-based, and experimental research. We then assess two contrasting accounts of the connection between the palm-up form and this proposed meaning network, and consider implications for our understanding of the palm-up form family more generally. By addressing the palm-up puzzle, we aim, not only to illuminate a widespread form found in gesture and sign, but also to provide insights into fundamental questions about visual-bodily communication: where communicative forms come from, how they take on new meanings, and how they become integrated into language in signing communities.

Keywords: Palm-up, Gesture, sign language, meaning, shrug, Communication

Received: 02 Jan 2018; Accepted: 22 May 2018.

Edited by:

Marianne Gullberg, Lund University, Sweden

Reviewed by:

Maria Graziano, Humanities Lab, Lund University, Sweden
Gaelle Ferre, University of Nantes, France  

Copyright: © 2018 Cooperrider, Abner and Goldin-Meadow. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Kensy Cooperrider, University of Chicago, Psychology, Chicago, United States, kensy@uchicago.edu