Oration

I was telling my students today that I used to ride a bicycle in Rome, and spoke with respect of Italian drivers; I neglected to tell them, however, that on a couple of occasions I was sadly forced to remark on Italian driving with two fingers.

The two-fingered gesture is I suppose meaningless to Italians, to whom it must look like a V for Victory. Why this furious Englishman in a tie was waving the V for Victory at them probably still troubles some of my victims. The truth is, had I had time to collect myself I might have trimmed the classic English two fingers to the more universal one finger, but under the pressure of events and emotions I lost not only my cool but also my fluency in international vulgarity.

I do not know how far gesture is a part of successful language learning, but it is clearly culturally specific. An argument might be made that adoption of characteristic gestures is part and parcel of learning to communicate in a target tongue. I certainly picked up a few in Italy (my confusion over fingers in the heat of battle on Rome’s streets notwithstanding), and still occasionally deploy them, to the bemusement of my English family. Using appropriate gestures makes it feel as though you are speaking the language, and while, unlike signing, there is no grammar of gesture as such, in some languages it not only underlies but completes meaning.

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Unfortunately for my students, English is not one of those languages: there is not much to work with. We make do with the handshake, the wave, the thumbs-up (do people still give the thumbs-up), and a handful of others. Unless of course you are giving what we now call a presentation, but would once have recognised as an oration. We ask our students to do this once a week without fail, but rarely dwell much on the power of gesture to amplify their rhetoric. Perhaps next week I will promulgate one of the many gesture manuals of the nineteenth century, such as this, in which the aspiring actor or orator is given pointers on gesture and expression in delivering a speech out of Milton:

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