Nick J. Enfield, "The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances" (Cambridge UP, 2012)


Linguists are apt to get excited when a language is identified that exhibits exotic properties, and gladly travel halfway round the world to document it, particularly if they think it's going to support a pet theory of theirs. Nick Enfield's fieldwork in Laos differs from this paradigm in at least three respects. First, his choice of location reflects a prior interest in the culture of the region; second, the object of his study is gesture rather than just speech; and third, it's quite possible that the forms of gesture he documents are actually very typical - we just don't know yet. However, as well as the fieldwork, which is attractively summarised and depicted in The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances (Cambridge University Press, 2009/2012), there is a theory at stake, or at least a theoretical outlook. For Enfield, the use of gestures alongside speech illustrates something profound about the nature of meaning, specifically that it is a composite notion to which justice is not done by an insistence on treating speech and gesture separately. In reality, language users are adept at conveying and comprehending complex packages of (at least) speech and gesture, and our theories should encompass that versatility. In this interview, we talk about the motivations for both the fieldwork and the theory, and consider how the bewildering complexity of gestural interaction can be approached by the analyst.

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