What Parts of Your Body Do You Speak With?

16496181136_0e392c0835_nWe don’t just speak with our mouths. We also speak with our bodies, our hands, our faces, our eyes, our respiratory systems, our lips, our tongues, our mouths, our brains. Various sayings emphasize the importance of these body parts in the production of language. Making faces. Her eyes spoke volumes. Hot air. Words dripped from her lips like honey. Mother tongue (implying that the language gives birth to the person). Mouthing off. Getting something off your mind. We used to talk about venting the spleen, letting out our angry feelings, but the truth is we don’t use the spleen. Speaking involves only certain parts of the body, so “I” tends to represent those parts.

Where is the I? To identify myself, I can point to myself instead of using the word “I,” but even that is a symbol. The proof is that I point to my chest, but Japanese people point to their noses or chins. You may object that this is just a minor variation (indicating a common origin), so I offer another piece of evidence. Try pointing something out to a cat and the cat will look at the finger you are jabbing in the air, not at the object. The cat does not know how to interpret the symbol of the pointing finger. (This does not mean that cats cannot learn symbolic communication. They learn their names, for instance.)

Body language communicates a great deal: leaning forward means you are interested and paying attention, slouching and  looking away means you’re bored. Sometimes our words contradict what our bodies are saying. We may say, “That’s interesting,” but our body is saying it’s not. In other words, spoken language is only one element of communication.

We speak with our hands — the OK sign, for example. We tend to think hand signals are universal, that they can be understood by people who speak other languages, but I have had students from other countries who did not understand the OK symbol, and in Brazil it means, “Fuck you!” Once a Spanish guy was telling me a bar was “atope,” but when I didn’t understand the word, he bunched his fingers together a couple of times to show me. I still didn’t understand. He repeated the symbol again and again, shocked that I couldn’t get his meaning. What seemed obvious to him was not clear for me: the fingers bunched together meant the bar was so crowded that people were pressed against each other.

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