Hakim Arif (PhD 2011) is associate professor of linguistics at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His dissertation was titled “Bengali everyday emblematic (BEE) hand gestures as communication acts: A pragmatic approach.” (2011). His publications include “Religio-cultural perspective and left hand taboo: A description of controlled hand gestures produced by Bengali speaking people” (2010), and “Woman’s body as a color measuring text: A signification of Bengali culture” (2004) in Semiotica. His current research focuses on different aspects of Bengali emblematic hand gestures. Hakim Arif can be reached at harif@univdhaka.edu.


Abstract In one of his papers Edmund Leach (1976: 2) mentioned (cited in Posner 1995) “culture communicates”. The elaboration of this statement reveals that various sign-systems of a culture such as, the verbal codes, nonverbal components, artifacts, cloths, culinary system and so on make some particular meanings within the members of this cultural community. In fact, the hidden connotation of this affirmation indicates every element of a culture not only carries out the meaning but also preserves the traditions and rituals people practice everyday. Following this proposition it is anticipated that Bengali Everyday Emblematic (BEE) hand gestures—one of the commonly performed nonverbal communicative signs of the Bengali ‘gesture-community’1— reflect different patterns of everyday Bengali life-styles, especially their rituals, greetings, way of expressions, promises, orders, commitments etc. The present paper, considering the above-hypothesis, provides a description of how Bengali people performing BEE hand gestures express their politeness and respect, symbolize everyday rituals, constitute gender friendly expressions, reflect the submissive attitude, establish their basic rights and so on.  (Illustrations can be sourced on last page of paper)


1  Using two hands and expressing an emphasis  


Instead of using only one hand people throughout the globe sometimes involve two hands to make some specific forms of emblematic hand gestures. In fact, the involvement of both hands in performing a communicative sign like emblem is not a mere gesture formation; rather it articulates a different connotation. Raymond (1910) in his seminal book entitled The orator’s manual Vocal Culture, Emphasis and Gesture not only gives a special name of this sign as double gesture but also identifies the reason of using two hands to form an emblematic hand gesture. As he says—   …Double gestures, made with both hands, increase the degree, not the kind, of emphasis that would be given by the same gesture if made with one hand. (Raymond 1910: 132)   In fact, this statement points out that the gesturer performing a double gesture shows an increased-degree of emphasis of his/her intention as well as communicative force in gesturing. The data of present research show a strong evidence of such a claim by Raymond (1910), since the informants2 provide the view that BEE hand gestures made with two hands indicate gesturers’ stronger intention to show politeness, respect, or perform protest etc. The following discussion gives a more clear view in this regard.


1.1. Emphasizing politeness


Politeness is a way of a communicative contact by which people express their good manners to the counterparts. In every culture human beings learn the techniques to show their politeness to the people from their cultural treasure, especially the linguistic (in the sense of communication) tradition. For example, when a person wants to perform a verbal politeness to the addressee, s/he needs to utter a socially recognized formal verbal code. Watts (2003) recognizing this formal verbal code as ‘polite language’ provides two important definitions such as 1) “the language a person uses to avoid being too direct” and 2) “language which displays respect towards or consideration for others” (p-1).  In addition to this ‘polite language’ the linguistic tradition of every community possesses some conventionalized nonverbal forms to fulfill the aforesaid purpose.   To ensure an environment of politeness of a communicative contact, the people in the Bengali community regularly use different forms of nonverbal components in addition to the socially made out verbal codes. Among these conventionalized nonverbal components BEE hand gestures can be treated as the most reliable ones because every member of this form of communicative signs expresses a full extent communicative force. It is worth pointing out that the term ‘communicative force’ is the contextual variation of Searle’s (1969) ‘illocutionary force’ which is one of the key factors of an illocutionary act to make the given illocutionary act into effect. Barker (2007) defines (illocutionary) force as “kinds of acts in which propositions are deployed with certain purposes” (p-190). In fact, in the Bengali community some BEE hand gestures made with two hands which possess a certain form of communicative force symbolize the expression of politeness, whereas using one hand indicates a normal approach in this regard only (Arif 2010). For example, in this culture begging with two hands indicates a more polite approach than using only one hand (see Figure 1.1a & 1.1b). So, the beggar in this community uses two hands to show his/her more politeness approach to convincing the addressee.   Accordingly, people performing BEE hand gesture to indicate ‘sit down’ to the audience also use two hands to symbolize the state of politeness. (see Figure 1.1c & 1.1d)


1.2. Emphasizing respect

Showing respect to the elders of the Bengali society is a very active social norm. Such a norm is frequently executed either by uttering the verbal code denoting politeness or showing the joint hand movement with a particular shape to the persons to be respected. So the young people in this community always use two hands in giving object/s or taking something from the elders and showing their respect to them as well. More specifically, in some particular region for instance, Chittagong—the south-east part of Bangladesh—even two persons with same age use both hands to perform this activity with a view to showing their respect and politeness to each other.


1.3. Emphasizing force


People in the Bengali community exhibit their protest and demand with fist gesture (Raymond 1910) made with the fingers clenched on the palm of one hand which starts jerking forcibly, and frequently making an upward movement. But when a person uses his/her two hands with identical shape as well as movement with a view to achieving same purpose, it indicates an emphasis of force. For example, the informants of this study depict that the man in the figure 1.3b is emphasizing more force with his two fists than that of the figure 1.3a raising only one fist.