Gestures such as a slight nod of the head or a shoulder shrug convey meaning without words and, as Americans, we are accustomed to using such gestures during routine conversations. But as Italian writer, director and producer Luca Vullo explained to a group of University of Dallas students on January 23, Sicilians have taken the art and grammar of physical gestures to the highest level. “Big gestures are not just a stereotype,” he said. “It’s an ability, a skill.”
Vullo’s presentation began with a screening of his film, La Voce del Corpo, which details the Sicilian custom of using hand gestures and facial expressions to augment and even replace spoken-word conversations. A historian in the film explained that Sicily sits at the crossroads of many cultures–a gateway between Africa and Europe. One theory on the origin of Sicilian gestures claims that they facilitated communication between travelers speaking a variety of languages. A Sicilian fable, though, says that an ancient king commanded his people to be silent, so his subjects were forced to communicate using gestures involving all parts of the body–head face, hands and feet. Regardless of the origin, the Sicilian language of gesture has evolved into what the film’s historian called a “supranational language.”
In his workshop following the film, Vullo described the grammar of gestures: a gesture can have very different meanings depending on the facial expression or body language surrounding it. According to Vullo, placing the thumb and forefinger together and mimicking drinking coffee doesn’t just mean ‘coffee.’ “It means, ‘Let’s go out now and drink a coffee together,’” he said.
But that same expression with the eyes wide open can mean ‘be careful.’ “When do this with a sweep of the arm across the chest,” Vullo said, “it means perfecto.” And, most importantly, he explained that the same gesture used in an Arabic country represents the most vulgar expression imaginable. “Whatever you do,” he said. “Don’t use the American ‘OK’ symbol in an Arab country.”
According to Vullo, the body is also an important tool in the language of gestures. Shaking one’s open hand in a downward motion to the side of the body means “I’m bored.” But shaking both hands forcefully acts as a superlative, changing the meaning of the gesture to “I’m really bored. Let’s get out of here.”
Vullo’s presentation illustrated how spoken words are just one aspect of communication. Gestures and facial expressions like those used in Sicily not only add depth to the language, they provide a window into the beauty of meaning that lies beneath the words.
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