Language and gesture


One of the things I enjoy most about the TV series of Inspector Montalbano (apart, that is, from the pleasure of watching Luca Zingaretti) is the dancing hands of the Sicilians as they speak. It’s endlessly fascinating. I spent a summer working in Italy as a PhD student, and one of the things that helped me enormously with my laughably poor Italian was the fact that most people gestured copiously as they talked. Even if you didn’t get the details of what they were talking about, you could often get the gist of it from the gestures. Judging by ‘Inspector Montalbano’, Sicilians seem to use gesture to an even greater and more formalised extent.

I was therefore interested to find a video translating some Italian hand gestures floating around on the internet today. Not all of the models are actually Italian, and it’s pretty obvious when you watch them who the Italians are. The non-Italians gesture awkwardly or sheepishly, while the Italians make the gestures fluidly as a natural part of speech, particularly the ‘perfect’ gesture, which needs a bit of flair.

That reminded me that I had meant to write about the phenomenon of sign names. People who use sign language usually have to spell out their names, or the names of people they are talking about, using finger spelling, as there are obviously no dedicated signs for names. If you have a long name, this is a bit long-winded and laborious, so people who are either sign language users themselves, or who hang out with sign language users, often get given a sign name. An important thing to understand is that you can’t choose your sign name: it has to be chosen for you by others, and is a bit like a nickname in that respect1. It might be a pun on your actual name, a reference to something striking about your appearance or personality, or it might refer to your interests or hobbies.

I had heard of sign names quite a while ago, but I was reminded about it while watching the latest series of the Great British Sewing Bee. One of the contestants, Lynda, is deaf and signs along with lip reading. She recounted how she and her family had given one of the judges, Patrick Grant a sign name. The sign was holding the right hand over the heart, fingers outstretched, fluttering the hand in a kind of ‘be still my beating heart!’ gesture. One of her daughters (if I remember correctly) has a bit of a thing for Patrick2, and would bring her hand up to her heart with this gesture when she talked about him, so that became his sign name. He got off pretty lightly. The article I linked to explains that sign names can occasionally be unflattering. The author temporarily got the sign name ‘Dribble’ after he laughed so hard in the pub that he dribbled a bit of beer down his chin. Another chap ended up being called ‘Murder’ (a play on his surname which was ‘Burder’). A fluttering hand over the heart is lovely, and struck me as apt even outside Lynda’s family, since so many people have a huge crush on him. Despite the fact that I don’t sign, I use his sign name now whenever I refer to him.

  1. And incidentally appears to be a marker of being accepted into a sign language community.
  2. If you haven’t seen the programme, he’s very tall, slim and incredibly dapper, with a very neat and slightly greying beard — not really my cup of tea, but I can see why people go a bit giddy over him.
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