Verbal Gestures

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We communicate with more than words. Sometimes we use other sounds to express ideas. If someone asks, “do I really have to be there by 8am?”, you might produce a sound like mm-hmm ( Speaker Icon) to confirm yes. Or, if you drop your lasagna on the ground, you might produce a sound like uh-oh ( Speaker Icon) to indicate your mistake. These sounds are sometimes called verbal gestures as they communicate meaning but are not a part of a language’s phonemic inventory (i.e., the base set of sounds used to form words). While some of these verbal gestures seem universal, others appear restricted to certain groups of speakers. Like this one:

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I use this verbal gesture to express discontent or disbelief. In fact, I do this so much at home that my partner often mocks me by exaggerating the gesture when I use it with him. After one such exchange, I paused and asked what do they call this sound in French? And then, what do I call it in English? Although we were both very familiar with the gesture, neither of us could think of its name. Short of an English-French verbal gesture dictionary or a Google sound search, we reached out to some primary sources: our family and friends.

My sister-in-law identified the French term tchiper, my mother-in-law suggested piaffer, and my friend Elizabeth told me about the West Indian term of steups and the American term of sucking teeth. Then I set off to the Internet to see what else I could learn about the gesture. There are quite a few humorous videos explaining this sound (after all, doesn’t comedy offer us a reflection of society):

Comedian Samia Orosemane comments on the tchip as used by IvoriansGizmo comments on the steups as used by people in Trinidad and Tobago

Scholars Rickford and Rickford provide an academic viewpoint through their 1976 study looking at linguistic and cultural differences towards the gesture. Drawing upon their personal experiences in Guyana, dictionaries specific to multiple countries in the West Indies, interviews with respondents from these countries, as well as a questionnaire administered to Black and White Americans in the north east, they found that:

informants from Jamaica,Trinidad, Barbados Antigua, and even Haiti (where, we understand it is sometimes referred to as tuiper or cuiper) confirmed familiarity with this oral gesture, its meaning, and the social prohibitions against its use as outlined above…many Black Americans are also familiar with it.

About four years ago, the gesture drew attention when a few French schools decided to ban its use. Let me say that children sucking teeth at adults is an act of defiance; use of the gesture with a teacher would be rude. However, some saw this interdiction as unjust and unduly harsh towards Black students. Others considered it an appropriate way to promote the type of language expected in formal settings.


But how then do you learn to use a verbal gesture? Unlike our words, we usually don’t learn verbal gestures in formal contexts. There is no vocabulary list to study or a set of grammar rules to memorize. Yet, people still master the gesture. This gets into pragmatics, or how language is used in social contexts. For example, a person possessing pragmatic knowledge of suck-teeth knows when to use the gesture, with who, and in which settings. Take a look at Christiane Taubira, a French politician and former Minister of Justice of France, who used a mouth guard gesture after letting a suck-teeth slip out during a debate. Without formal training, we simply learn verbal gestures through immersion in a culture that includes the sounds in its communicative inventory.

What are your favorite verbal gestures?

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