Communicating With NON-verbal Speech; Different Around The Planet?

@Maggiepie (7821)
United States
June 5, 2011 9:51am CST
I was having a conversation about language recently with an erudite friend, & the question arose, are inflections universal from language to language? He said he didn't believe they were, & gave as an example/proof of the Mandarin language, at least, which doesn't use a rising tone at the end of a sentence, as English does, to indicate an interrogative. Mandarin Chinese uses various tones of the same word to mean different things. A common example of this is the syllable "mah," which, with a rising inflection at the end means either "mother" or "horse" (I can never remember which), & the other way around means the other term. I believe there are 4 words, all of which we'd spell "mah," but there are 4 different meanings which arise merely from the changes in tone. A few English words are like that, but in Chinese, many words do so. Today, it occurred to me that a good portion of common, direct communication is achieved with our gestures. Most (but not all) cultures nod to express "affirmative," & shake their heads back & forth to express "negative." This is a nearly universally-understood gesture. Are there other gestures so wide-spread? I know that the facial expressions we use are definitely universal; they've actually been "mapped" & listed by experts. They're pretty detailed...lots of nuanced expressions. It's astonishing, really, how many & varied they are! And every human uses them! We really are all brothers & sisters! The gesture I'm most interested in at this moment is the shrug. It always means "I don't know," or "I'm not sure..." It's often accompanied by a certain facial expression, which I won't describe unless someone asks me to do so. But...is this a universal thing, or nearly so? It feels so natural to do it that it's difficult to imagine how else it could be expressed! Yet, humans are creative, so I'm asking: do you use the shrug in your culture? If not, how do you express a lack of knowledge non-verbally, or you do so at all? Do you have other non-verbal expressions you feel are unique to your culture--or, the reverse--you feel they're probably universal? Every thinker out there, speak up! Here, after all, non=-verbal gestures are useless! Maggiepie "Coffee is not a drug...it's a vitamin." ~ Source unknown
2 people like this
6 responses
• United States
5 Jun 11
Wow, where to begin? You mention facial expressions as made popular in the show Lie To Me, based on the work of Paul Ekman. These are pretty universal and no good scientific answer has been brought forth as to why. When it comes to body motions beyond the face the system is not as precise. the hand signs used to insult someone vary wildly around the world, for instance. However, the head bow, the shrug and the salute are closer to universal. I think the confusion with the shrug is that it can be used with 2 or 3 different facial expressions so the meaning changes slightly, but it is always some kind of "don't know" nuance. Inflection within a language is, of course, under verbal, not non-verbal, communication so the question there is very different. Even within one language, accent can change the inflections. I know many poeple who claim to immediately know where a person is from within a few hundred miles, just based on their English accent. I imagine the same can be said of any widely spoken language. Surely a Beijing accent in Mandoran is much different than a mountain farmer's accent. My greatest sadness is that I didn't learn more languages when my brain was still a sponge (as opposed to the leaky sieve it is now), but I am pretty good at body language and have studied the FACS (facial action coding system, detailed by Dr. Ekman) enough to get by with most people.
• United States
6 Jun 11
"the hand signs used to insult someone vary wildly around the world" True story: When I was growing up my folks played a game with us kids where they would pretend to pull off our noses, sticking their thumb between the forefinger and middle finger to denote the nose they "took". When my brother in law was in the Air Force, stationed in Germany, he played this game with his two year old son and got scolded for it. He was told that the thumb placed like that in Germany means what the middle finger stuck in the air means in the US.
• Hong Kong
5 Jun 11
Hey hey I speak Cantonese and Mandarin, I think you may misunderstand something. May be let me explain a little bit. -- "Mandarin Chinese uses various tones of the same word to mean different things" Technically speaking, they are not the same "word", but same "symbol" (your example is "ma", which is the symbol instead of the actual Chinese word). In Mandarin, there is a system developed by the Central Government which is like the IPA system in English. It indicates the pronunciations of the words. It contains some symbols which are like the vowels and consonants in IPA. It does nothing with the meaning of the words. With this symbols, it is not enough for someone to read out the words. You have to know the 5 tones (they are symbolized as well, - / V \)in Mandarin in addition to the symbols in order to read the words out. But when you read out the words with 5 tones, it doesn't mean that there are 5 different words, in fact there should be more than 5 words. There are many words in Chinese that may have same pronunciation (which do not usually occur in English), and sometimes a word may have more than one pronunciation in different occasions. In this sense, we cannot identify which words the symbols+tones refer to without context. -- ""Mah", rising inflection at the end means either mother or horse" For this, it seems not to be a correct example, yes, they have same "symbol", but the tones are different, and the actual words in writing are different as well. But there are some examples which the word (not symbol) in Chinese is the same but the meaning is different due to the changes in tones. I think it is what you are thinking in mind. -- "there are 4 different meanings which arise merely from the change in tone." My opinion is that the use of rising inflection in English and Mandarin are different. The use of rising inflection (as well as falling inflection )indicates different words in Mandarin; But the use of rising intonation in English may help speaker to convey or imply their meaning or purpose (and bring the so called implicature in linguistics?). It influences the whole sentence instead of a single word. I don't know whether I get you right and whether you understand what I mean because of my poor explanation. But hope it helps you to understand more about Mandarin. Cheers!
2 people like this
• United States
6 Jun 11
Okay. I'm totally confused now but then I don't speak Mandarin. LOL Nor am I sure it's because of your explanation or because of my dyslexia but I could not follow this at all. On the other hand, neither could I follow what Maggie was saying. Must be the dyslexia, eh?
• United States
5 Jun 11
A shrug can also mean "I don't care" or "whatever" as in "I do not agree but am done arguing about this subject". I am not sure that these are "universal" gestures (or meanings for the gesture), but I do know many people that shrug in these instances. Therefore, I think it is the context of the conversation along with the gesture that determines the meaning. You did mention facial expressions, though, and the facial expressions that accompany the shrug are definitely not the same for the different meanings.
2 people like this
@GardenGerty (95681)
• Marion, Kansas
5 Jun 11
Of course, you know we shrug. I want to add to this the sound without syllables for I don't know. I have heard kids do this. No words, just the shrug and the three grunt like syllables, done in up and down tones. It means "I don't know" but it has no words at all.
2 people like this
• United States
5 Jun 11
I think it is very possible that more is indicated with our gestures than by inflections in our voice. However, a yell is a yell in any language! lol! I had a roommate who spoke Korean and it could sound really harsh at times.. to me anyway. But then I would hear her say something and then just laugh like it was really funny! Maybe it's all in the interpretation!
• United States
6 Jun 11
Many times in movies when I have watched in foreign languages people seemed to be yelling when in fact they were simply talking. I found that many of the Oriental languages sounded like they were yelling when they were not because they would be in a higher pitched tone while talking. It seemed that this was just their dialect but since I don't speak the languages and have never lived in those places, I really cannot say for sure. It just seemed that way to me in the movies I saw.
@alaskanray (4642)
• United States
6 Jun 11
I think dialect makes a big difference in the meanings behind inflections and non-verbal cues, Mags. While we in the US vary widely in accent and dialect, most of us in the US have the same non-verbal cues that we use but I have known some folks who were new to the US from places like Viet Nam, the Philippines and the like who did not use the same inflections or non-verbal cues. They did learn to adapt eventually, of course, but I think it is a cultural thing. Different cultures read in different meanings into different cues. Our traditions have a huge influence over our communications.