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Book: Body Talk and Cultural Identity in the African World

Chapter: 6. The Convergence of Language and Culture in Malawian gestures: Handedness in Everyday Rituals

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.24094


Natural language is composed of multiple modes of utterances, including spoken words and gestures, the spontaneous movements of the hands and other parts of the body. Is there a relationship between gestures that accompany speech and non-linguistic movements of the body that occur during routine activities such as cooking, fishing and farming? Drawing from video recordings of elicited and spontaneous speech of chiTonga speakers in ), I show that gestures reflect culturally specific habits of how speakers in a particular community use their hands and bodies to perform everyday activities. For example, bundling the fingertips of the right hand while moving the hand close to the mouth forms the gesture for “food.” The semantic value of this gesture comes from the local method of consuming nsima, a thick porridge typically made of cassava or maize flour. The eater removes a small portion of the porridge with his or her hand, molds the small portion into a ball with the palm of the hand and transports the porridge into the mouth. Using evidence from a chiTonga speaking society in Malawi, this paper presents further evidence about the relationship between language and a speaker’s knowledge of the physical interaction with the world.

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