From the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement Vol. 26, Issue 2.
Semasiology: A Semantic Anthropologist’s View of Human Movements and Actions

The term “semasiology” (see Williams 1976) is used as a label for certain new procedures and methods in the study of human movement, 1 some of which are outlined (others only alluded to) in this paper. 2 The term also implies certain assumptions about the nature of human beings: that they are rule-following, role-creating, meaning-makers. Older definitions of humanity, i.e. “tool-maker,” “imperial animal,” “fallen angel,” “weapon-maker,” “political animal,” and the like lead to different styles of analysis and, ultimately, to different conclusions. The assumptions made about humanity by semasiologists are encoded in the definition of the word “action” as it is used in our theoretical context. 3

Culture and Human Movement

Chapman rightly observes that, where we recognize a need for the translation of unintelligible foreign spoken languages, body languages are not granted the same status: “Translation will not be thought necessary” (1983: 134). Semasiology begins from the premise that translation is necessary; that human body languages, i.e., the semantic uses of the body and the spaces in which it moves, have largely eluded us, for a start, because movement has been a nonliterate medium of human expression. Our theory of human actions is tied into a transcription system (see Williams 1977), some examples of which appear in this writing.

The introduction of written texts into the study of human movement is a subject that merits examination on its own, but it will suffice to say here that transcriptions of actions pushes Geertz’ notion of “thick description” to its limits—and perhaps beyond. This is due to the fact that, in transcribing actions, one specifies what is being transcribed in different ways than are apparent on examination of transcriptions of vocal acts. In this paper, as in all of our researches, the same status is accorded to transcriptions of bodily acts as to vocal acts: we begin by recognizing that both speaking and moving are non-material phenomena.

In fact, like the concept of human “culture,” human movement is not itself a material phenomenon. Human movement is a cognitive and semantic organization of a material phenomenon: the human body (or bodies) in a four-dimensional space/time. Just as there is a sense in which “culture” can be seen as a cognitive, and ultimately meaningful, organization of material phenomena and the external environment, so human actions in any of their manifestations are cognitive, and ultimately meaningful, organizations of bodies and the structured spaces in which they move.

Acting, like dancing or moving, is essentially the termination, through actions, of a certain kind of symbolic transformation of human experience (see Williams 1972). Where the more familiar terminal symbols of speech are expressed in words, sentences and paragraphs, the less familiar terminal symbols of movement are expressed in action signs, action utterances and an impressive variety of structured systems of meaning that include deaf-signing, dances, martial arts, liturgies, ceremonies of all kinds, manual counting systems, systems of greeting and many others. We merely reiterate an anthropological truism when we say that, from the outset, we are considering a global array of human body languages, an astonishing variety of systems.

There is intra-cultural variation as well as inter-cultural variation such that some comprehension of the sociolinguistic facts of these constitutes an important first step towards a semasiological understanding of human movement. 4 If the “code” of the body language is not understood, then the empirically perceived “messages” will be misunderstood (see Pouwer 1973: 1-13). To facilitate understanding of what human movement is, we must recognize the non-material conceptual boundaries that are placed on it, and this is why we require rather elaborate theoretical and methodological means whereby we can assure ourselves, and others, that our analytical re-descriptions are both accurate and truthful.

One of the consequences of our interest in variation among human body languages is the idea that systems of body languages are not unitary phenomena. That is, they cannot adequately be described by only one set of organizing principles, although at a structural meta-level, we can postulate certain invariant features of (a) the body, (b) the space in which it moves, and (c) certain transitive and intransitive features of an hierarchy of human choice, such that we can say that there are elements of these body languages that are in complementary distribution in the world, and so do not, at this level, conflict with one another. 5

Our method(s) of approaching the vast field of human movement studies consists, not of a unitary descriptive “grid” into which we force highly variant cultural data. Rather, we aim to encourage the point of view that “unity” will perhaps emerge from seeing the ordered relations between variants and contexts. This is possible only if one sees “variety,” including sometimes incompatible ideologies and beliefs perceived in the systems “on the ground,” not as deviations from an assumed “norm” but as manifestations of intricate sets of rules that, at base, can be seen to reiterate a linguistic truism: the medium (in this case, movement) is the message.

“Unitary descriptions,” then, will usually be produced by semasiologists—by anthropologists of human movement. It is social anthropology, like theoretical physics and other sciences, that can produce semasiological accounts of body languages as “unitary phenomena” governed, say, by the law of hierarchical motility or the structure of interacting dualisms (see Williams 1976: 124). Ecology, theology and ethology also produce unitary descriptions, but ours are not like these. We do not, as anthropologists, offer a meta-theoretical level of explanation that consists of motivational, behavioural or religious explanation of what human movement consists.

In fact, each individual user of a body language may have a unique, personalized, model of what his or her movement experiences and manifestations consist. Each user may or may not be cognizant even of other models of actions held by other members of other cultures far less his or her own. But it is just here that neo-Durkheimian preoccupations with the relation between individual and society become important. They are important to us as trained investigators insofar as they are couched in the Saussurian notion that in separating (body) language from moving, acting, dancing, we are at the same time separating (1) what is social from what is individual and (2) what is essential from what is more or less accessory or accidental. “Body language,” as we conceive of it, is not a function of the individual mover, actor or dancer: it is a primary social fact. Whilst it is true that many “movers,” like most speakers, behave as if only a limited number of ways of acting exist, this does not alter the fact that it is the semasiologist who, as a result of discipline and training, plus a far greater than average visual and spatial awareness, is able to transcend these particular models, who is able, in a clear and elegant manner, to describe and explain to others of what the systems consist.

The “theory” here is not so much, then, a “theory of movement” comparable, say, to kinesiological theories about measurements of latent kinetic energy and muscular movements, as it is a “theory of culturally and semantically laden actions” couched in theories of various idioms of dancing, singing, liturgy, greeting systems, martial arts and such. It is in some sense more rightly understood as a “theory of descriptions” of these phenomena (see Williams 1982). Part (and only part) of what we mean by “description” is the writing of the actions in Laban script, 6 of which a few minor examples appear in this paper.

At the simplest level of our enquiries, we start by asking, “How would the people of some other culture or the users of some other body language expect me to behave if I were a member of that culture or wanted to use their body language?” We ask this because we believe that to explicate the rules of the body language of “x” is to provide a few beginning answers to that question and at the same time-lay the groundwork for a low-level “theory” of that body language. Because we advocate a self-critical style of anthropological study, we constantly compare the rules of “x” with the known rules of our own idioms, thus the knowledge that emerges is of a basically reflexive nature.

It is thus that the description of the rules of “x” body language (dance, signing system or what-you-will) itself constitutes a “theory” of that culture or of some part of a culture, because it represents the conceptual model of organization used for the body language of that culture. We “validate” our theories by our increased abilities to anticipate successfully how “x” people would expect us to behave if we were members of that culture, and we can, if challenged, provide “validation” on other, more recondite levels as well.

It is an axiom of semasiology that the medium of movement in the human realm is as profoundly rule-based as is the medium of sound as it is used in human speech.

Meaningful Rules

I draw attention, for example, to the significance of permutational analysis (Williams 1981: 214-17) by pointing to the finite character of the expressive possibilities of movements of the human body: the semasiological body itself is thus conceived of as a system. Constraints on this system’s capacity to move are considered important because it is just here that the semasiological definition of “rule” begins: at the level of “meta-rules” where we comprehend the laws and principles of movement that are paradigmatic to the whole expressive bodily system. Given the numerical potential that actually exists (Williams 1981: 215), we know that no human system of body language exhausts, through usage or in practice, all of the potential of which that system is capable.

At an observational level, we know that a body language, or any subset thereof, will have a grammar of positional elements and movement elements that are used over and over in a variety of ways that identify it as that particular body language (or “code”) and no other. It will have rules for deletion, inclusion and spatial manipulation that are distinctive features of it as an identifiable idiom of structured meaningful movements.

The body language will also have rules for combining elements from the smallest “emic” units (see Kaeppler 1972 and 1978) or “motifs” into larger and larger combinatory units. 7 Movement sequences also have rules for conjoining and embedding phrases into larger sequences. It may be that “it is the rules themselves that define just what [a body language] is” (Myers 1981: 263). We know that the locally Euclidean space wherein all human movement takes place is rule-bound (see Durr and Farnell 1981). The structures and semantics of human actions are irrevocably connected (see Puri 1981a). Without the rule-bound, language-like characteristics of human actions, communications on a non-vocalized level 8 would be a tedious business indeed. Without rules (even if the rules are the absence of rules), we would be reduced to a kindergarten “show and tell” level of comprehension in our daily affairs that would impede our activities and understanding greatly—or else “action” and “ritual” semiotics would be confined to the confused state of affairs described over a decade ago by Ardener (1971: xliii-xlv).

All social anthropologists understand the interdependence of linguistic, social and movement elements in the human domain: we offer nothing “new” with reference to our preoccupations, surely, but we do offer new methods of conceiving of, reconstituting and interpreting movement data. Our understanding of the facts, grounds and consequences of this interdependence is not simply “intuitive.” Perhaps this was anticipated by Sapir who said,

Gestures are hard to classify and it is difficult to make a conscious separation between that in gesture which is merely of individual origin and that which is referable to the habits of a group as a whole . . . we respond to gestures with an extreme altertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all. (1949: 556)

One would prefer to change the word “understood” in the Sapirian formulation to “used by all” because one doubts that the “unwritten codes” and rules of body languages are even vaguely understood by many. There is a sense in which it is the so far successful attempts to “crack the codes” that justifies semasiology’s existence.

Social-Theoretical Issues

In the theoretical and methodological world of semasiology, we do not hold the assumption that better knowledge of the semantically void fields of physics and kinesiology of human movement, rather than of the semantically loaded, intentional, reflexive, rule-bound nature of movement is going to permit a more humanistic—or “scientific”—analysis of human actions. Whilst we recognize various levels of rules, starting from our meta-level of structures of interacting dualisms, of the degrees of freedom of the semasiological body and all the rest (see Williams 1976: parts I and II), we see human actions as they exist on an empirical level as structured, semantic spaces (closely akin to the “moral spaces” of Crick (1976: 113-15). These spaces exhibit all of the features of unpredictability, teleology, transaction and obligation that characterize human domains.

Semasiology postulates certain structural invariants with reference to the human body and the physical spaces in which it moves (and our analytic re-descriptions are informed by a model of mathematical degrees of freedom of the body, enabling us to do legitimate cross-cultural comparisons), but we do not, because of this, fall into what we think of as the “determinists’ trap.” That is to say that our “meta-rules,” “transformational rules” and the like do not project us—or the rest of humanity—into a positivistic, behaviouralist universe where human actions are seen simply as necessary responses to external stimuli. Nor do we see semantically dense spaces solely as the results of “social forces” that are external to individual decisions.

To treat human actions as instances of manifestations of known structural laws of the expressive human body-instrument is not to treat all human conduct as instances of ill-defined “laws” of human society or conventions, and this point can hardly be over-stressed. Semasiology does not teach that all human conduct is determined by a “structure of interacting dualisms” or by the degrees of freedom of the semasiological body: it does affirm the idea that all human conduct and actions are generated out of a finite field of movement possibilities. To postulate universality of structure does not, in our view, simultaneously provide evidence that all human actions—far less human “nature”—is alike, or that human freedom is non-existent.

Our preoccupation with questions like these stems from our deep concern over what “the dance” and “ritual” consists of. If human beings are creatures driven totally or even partially by external stimuli, then “ritual” consists of actions that are no more likely to attain human ends than any other action we might think of. On the other hand, if human beings are creatures who, given their unique natures, powers and capacities, have the freedom to choose activities, obligations, responsibilities and such in a basically unpredictable universe, then ritual consists of freely assumed obligations to attain specific ends and they are not therefore strictly equatable with “habitual,” routinized actions. To put matters in brutally simple terms, we ask, “Can brushing one’s teeth and attending a religious or political ceremony be classified equally as ‘ritual’ actions?”

Synonymy and the Semantics of Movement

The ultimate goal of semasiology is to explain how sequences of a body language are matched with their correct interpretations by the users of that body language, be it the Dominican post-Tridentine Mass, the Indian hasta-mudra system, North American Indian sign languages, social dancing, deaf signing systems or any other movement system. Like many other social scientific goals, this one has yet to be achieved. The significance of our program at New York University in the Social Anthropology of Human Movement certainly finds one of its foci here, and we have made some inroads with research that is presently in hand. 9

Seen from an international perspective, questions that seem to have been answered by semasiology’s predecessors 10 turned out, in the end, to have more questions (and yet more profound questions) lurking behind them. One of the basic concepts that badly wants investigation, for example, is that of synonymy in body languages. To say that two different sequences of body language or even two gestures from different codes “have the same meaning” is to claim that they are synonymous, or that they in some sense “paraphrase” one another. Great carelessness has been exhibited in the usage of these concepts regarding body languages.

For example, a true case of synonymy would be as shown in Figure 1. Clear examples of this kind are relatively hard to come by.

Figure One
Figure 1. a) Catholic sign of the cross. b) Orthodox sign of the cross.

If other examples are considered, say, the act of kneeling (see Figure 2), the answer has to be preceded by the phrase "it depends," which is an immediate indication of semasiological trouble.

Figure Two
Figure 2. a) genuflection; b) Muslim "raka"; c) woman in garden

Kinologically, 11 the actions appear to be the same: the general posture of “kneeling” is involved in all three actions, but the gross physical move by itself (like the repetitions of raw sounds in the words “tottered” and “rotted”) do not themselves explain the semantic variations. Nor, I think, can we imagine that to invoke the term “context” is enough—useful though the term may be.

With reference to the three texts of “kneeling” for a start, the act of kneeling is, to most Muslims and Christians, a religious act. Kneeling in a garden is not, although it might be. Perhaps one kneels in that context to pull weeds, to gather melons or berries or to retrieve a dropped tool. Even in a religious context, kneeling has been part of the Muslim ritual since ca 610 A.D. The genuflection in Roman Catholicism was a sixteenth-century innovation, Standing, not kneeling, was the posture of prayer before that, and standing is still the posture of faith in Orthodox Christianity.

Is “kneeling,” therefore, a functional act, a religious act, or an act that connotes subservience, humiliation, or (as when someone is knighted) a posture that is assumed where a singular social honour is bestowed? Then, too, there are the vast differences that exist between an ethological and a semasiological view that must, I think, also be considered here: the question is often asked “what is the connection between, say, ‘submission gestures’ of primates or wolves and human liturgical actions such as genuflections?” Semasiologists would answer “none” to that, but there are a variety of unresolved philosophical and theoretical issues at stake here.

Crick rightly insists that we use the term “person category” and that we include the notion of “personhood” in our conceptions of status, rank and social class (1976: 115-18). He argues the case with reference to witches, but the fact remains that, in the human domain, no category of person exists in isolation from others. To identify human actions like “genuflection” with the “submission behaviour” of animals thus invites an insidious form of deterministic thinking into our discourse via an almost un-noticed series of reductions: from “status” to “person” and from “person” to “animal.” The meta-theoretical implications of this point of view have been ably spelled out in Varela (1982), in a critique of the phenomenological point of view regarding human movement (see Sheets 1981).

This kind of conceptual confusion is intolerable in semasiology and raises a point that is generally overlooked: in some way we seem to disambiguate the signals of animals for them in their systems of behaviours, but we do this reflexively for ourselves. That is, we seem to assume that animals are transparent, whilst we are opaque. We do not assume that we are transparent for the good reason that we are language-users; hence, what we see of others (or ourselves) is not by any means obvious, nor can meanings of human actions always be inferred from observable acts.

After all, for a human being, doing nothing at all can be a semantic act, as is apparent in published research on an Anglo-Saxon counting system (Williams 1977). In that system, as in many others, body members which are not moved are often of equal significance as are those that do move. The point is that the epistemology of human actions and animal behaviours is entirely different. We disambiguate animals’ signals for them precisely because our own reflexivity is based upon orders of logical complexity and an hierarchy of powers.

There are several arguments that can be invoked (see Williams 1975: ii-ix; Crick 1976: 100-108), but one would want to say, briefly, that repetitive gestures in the Dominican (or any other) religious rite are not “natural repetitions,” as one could fairly assume that so-called “submission behaviour” among primates is “natural,” i.e., biologically triggered. One can make these assertions with confidence because “submission,” like “authority,” “genuflection” and such, are human, linguistically based concepts that are connected with ideologies and conceptions of actions. Thus, it is false to say that “people genuflecting” or “people kneeling” is somehow ethological, but that why they kneel or how they kneel is linguistic. Being a social anthropologist, I cannot favour an argument for lexicon as against system, just as I cannot separate the linguistic from the social. The facts of how it is that liturgical actions, gestures, and the like are named make such arbitrary separations spurious in my view. The additional problem (more serious than is credited) that certain components of primate behaviour have been named “submission gestures” by human investigators render these expressions in the animal context to a realm of rather woolly metaphor.

Spatial Referents

It will be useful now to turn to another triad of actions, shown in Figure 3. These actions would all be classified in English as “bows.” The stretch written for the T’ai Chi master occurs at the beginning of the short form of the exercise. The stretch written for the Catholic celebrant is inclinatio profunda sacerdote et ministris from the Dominican liturgy. The third stretch is a move made by the Red Knight in the ballet Checkmate. The very spaces in which these three agents manifest (or exteriorize) their long, complicated sequences of actions is not the same. The spaces in which these three agents operate are discrete spaces; in other words, there exists a conceptually organized spatial orientation (a “p-structure” 12)) that is paradigmatic to the empirically perceivable movements in each, and we must be explicit about this.

In Figure 3 it is critical that the Tai Chi master’s system of spatial referents is designated () (the spatial “key” sign), which tells us that it is a standard frame of referents, because the celebrant’s () is a fixed point frame, whilst the dancer’s is a constant frame of referents, i.e. () (see Durr and Farnell 1981 for a thorough explanation of these spatial constructs).

Figure Three

Figure 3. a) T'ai Chi; b) Missa Major; c) Checkmate

The canonical coordinate space of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is based on the fact that “[a]ll directions in this system whether they apply to the body instrument space or to the displacement space in which the body moves are given in terms of the directions of a compass . . . thus, () corresponds in original Chinese usage to the geographical directions of south = front (in front of), west = right (to the right of), north = behind (in back of) and east left (to the left of)” (Williams 1975: 112, vol. II).

There is a different arrangement of spatial elements in the Dominican rite, where the liturgical space is “embedded” in the geographical space and is orientated towards the high altar, such that the direction “east” (corresponding to the high altar) is a fixed focal point. “West” is opposite to the altar, and right and left correspond to the Gospel and Epistle sides of the altar, respectively (see Williams 1982 for a thorough discussion).

The Dominican Mass is based on two axes of oppositions of front/back and right/left in the semantic space, in contrast to the Chinese system, which is based on a clockwise movement around the perimeter of the directions, as on a compass. The ballet dancer’s space is neither directly associated with the directions of the compass, nor is it based on an hierarchical set of directions: the canonical directional set in this case is determined by a schema that originated with the Maestro Cecchetti a little before the turn of the century (see Beaumont and Idzikowski 1940: 220) and has been used by ballet dancers since then, whether on stage or in classrooms.

Clearly, the semantic differences or similarities in the examples so far given relate to specific kinesemes of movement 13:: to the structures of the whole-body gestures or postures and their combinations. There are different kinds of problems involved in longer kinesemic stretches. For example, relations that may seem to involve the same movements but that convey different metaphorical or metonymic emphases, or whether the agent is acting or being acted upon, whether the referential features of the moves are personal or extrapersonal and so on. 14 Should there remain any doubts about the intricacies—or the crucial semantic characteristics—of spatial referents in human structured systems of actions, the reader is referred to Puri (1981b) for a discussion of polysemy and homonymy with reference to body language.

Ardener’s distinction between a “programme” and a syntagmatic stretch of manifest actions is surely apposite to the relation between the conceptual space(s) of agent(s) and their observable movements. From the evidence so far presented, it can be seen that the kinesemes of “bows” written in Figure 3 are not synonymous: they neither “paraphrase” one another, nor do they “have the same meanings” as do the pair of gestures in Figure 1. The difficulty is, of course, that, where we presuppose a real level of “language” with regard to speaking, we do not tend to presuppose a level of “language” or anything remotely resembling that with regard to dancing, signing, the martial arts, liturgies or the great variety of ordinary structured systems of non-vocalized meaning to be found in the world.

No Concept of Language

There are many forms of dancing throughout the world that are roughly equivalent to what in our culture we call “social” or “ballroom” dancing. These have countless times been explained in terms of the function of “mate-hunting.” Fair enough. But semasiologists would want to point out that there are many forms of spoken languages that are also used for the purposes of “mate-hunting.” In either case, the notion of “mate-hunting” is merely a minor and specific use of the medium of movement—or the medium of sound, as the case may be. No one, of course, would attempt to characterize the whole of, say, the English language in terms of its minor and specific usages for “mate-hunting,” yet over and over again, we encounter examples of body languages characterized in terms of minor and specific usages of the medium of movement.

The whole area of movement studies and, indeed, any concept of human action in any of its aspects is simply vitiated; rendered meaningless by generalizations that stem from comparatively limited notions about specific and minor usages of the medium of human movement. Worse yet, in this domain of human action, we are usually somewhat less than conscious victims of our own categories, definitions and models of the role of movement in human societies. We divide bodily actions (but not speech actions) into “symbolic” and “instrumental” categories (Ardener 1973). In particular we are betrayed by our received ideas of what a “scientific” or “sociological” explanation of what human actions consist.

David Best (1978) summarizes the rather depressing picture very well: 15

reflexivity, intentionality, agency, language, meaning, semantics, teleology

causation, stimulus-response theory, behaviourism, “objectivity,” value-free scientific explanation

If we let “X” stand for all that is above the double line and “Y” stand for all that is below the lines, then we seem to expect that we will find “causes” for X in the realm of Y, with the result that all human actions are collapsed into gross physical movements and treated as if they were the same. Semasiology rejects this, or any similar view, on the grounds that traditionally acceptable paradigms of scientific method and explanation are conceptually and logically inadequate to handle the semantics of human spaces. We believe that “no adequate scientific account of human action in its various spatial frameworks can ignore its profoundly semantic qualities” (Crick 1976: 101).

The actions of the human semasiological body are value-laden; meanings are arbitrary and culturally assigned. Human beings are not only the passive receptors of “role-takeovers”; they are role-takers, and it may be of significance to note in passing that so far semasiologists are highly accomplished dancers—or they are professionally trained in signing, the martial arts or other forms of non-vocalized forms of communication. They bring to social anthropology the kinds of developed notions of body languages about which I have tried to speak because there is a sense in which they are “native informants” in these areas who are becoming anthropologists. Would it not be unusual if they did not protest at ethological and/or sociological explanations of their lives and activities as undifferentiated “behaviours” of some kind?

They are offered the banalities of “submission behaviour,” “smiling,” “work movements,” “greeting gestures” and the like, if not wider generalizations such as “‘birth,” “death,” “pleasure,” “pain”—all of which involve sets of gestures or stretches of “behaviour” that are loosely tied together simply because there are features of the human anatomy that are “species specific” and therefore must be the same.

They seem to be asked by other theoretical approaches to the study of human movement to ignore spatial designata and the features of human agency to which attention has been drawn here, with the result that the mysteries (or mystifications) of the world’s religions, the complexities of the world’s dances and body languages and much else belonging to the realm of human action are transferred to the commonplaces of nature, sans Philosophy, sans History, sans Mathematics, and above all—sans Language—and the irrevocable connections that body languages have with the human faculty for language-use.

The “facts of nature” are universal, but if the facts of language-use and the facts of human spatio-linguistic fields are removed from the facts of nature in the human case, there remains very little of interest to be said about them. What can be said along these lines has been adequately treated in the fields of physiology, kinesiology, sociology, experimental psychology, sometimes with tedious repetition. There is very little of interest, to us at least, about human actions looked upon as “non-verbal” behaviour (see note 8).


The Notion of “Rules” Again

It needs to be said that we do not claim to study something that other anthropologists have not thought of or that they have never been interested in: we simply offer new ways of reconstituting and interpreting data of this kind. We are interested in the constructs that are formed in accordance with systems of spatial and general “gestural” relevance, and we look upon “ethnographies” of these systems in terms of (1) the development of texts for body languages and (2) upon ethnography in general as a rather complicated process of theory-building that is carried out in co-operation with native informants, whether those informants are members of our own ethnicity or of another.

Human knowledge of the world comes to us through many channels and many mediums. Our first topographic knowledge of our many personalized worlds consists of a kind of spatial exploration of our own bodies and its limitations, then our immediate environment and its limitations. Gradually, we are introduced into the vernaculars of everyday body languages and their conventions. We learn to define ourselves and others as much through the syntactical structures and “grammars” of events as we do through speech, beginning with “standing,” “walking,” “sitting,” “crawling” and all the rest. At the same time that we learn these and a mind-boggling variety of other actions, locations and spatial referents (referred to in semasiology as the deictic 16 categories and coordinates of our worlds), we learn the local systems of relevances that are typical of our language and cultural setting: we learn the orientational metaphors that organize whole systems of actions with respect to one another—and most of these have to do with spatial orientation. We learn the obligations, freedoms, choices and constraints that constitute our moral and semantic spaces.

As human children, from the moment of our births, we enter into a world of structured spaces, of linguistic and deictic categories, into concepts of legitimacy, illegitimacy, conceptual fields, ideologies and all the rest. The human child is both an actual and a potential player in an unbelievably intricate set of language games that involve both speech and actions—and both are learned. During this process, we learn that some kinds of rules can be meaningless, just as we learn that “mistakes,” “prevarication,” “mishaps” and such are a part of the human condition. All of this represents a certain level of rules, and these rules are important. However, semasiology postulates a level of meta-rules—those that outlive all events, and from this level we would want to say that, whilst there can be meaningless rules in human semantic spaces “on the ground” so to speak, there can be no meaning (or meaninglessness) at all without rules. 17

In this short paper, I have briefly illustrated through the concept of synonymy and through limited ethnographic evidence, some of the diversities and complexities involved in a few “emic” examples of human body-language games. I have done little except to point to the ethnographic materials that I and my colleagues possess, but felt that it would be pointless to try to extend the “fieldwork” aspects of semasiological research any further here, preferring to answer some of the many challenges that have been thrown our way over the past three years with more general statements of the theoretical position from which our conception of human body language begins.

We provide equally powerful arguments for a different approach to the study of human movement in social anthropology—one that is designed to go beyond the limitations of traditional scientific approaches to the field. Semasiology will only fully justify its existence and meet the challenges of its rival theories, of course, by the growth of evidence presented by those who have understood and accepted the premises of its explanatory paradigm. However, even with the relatively small amount of work so far produced, we have not crumpled under the accumulated weight of many years of work that has been produced using different methods and different definitions of humanity.

Semasiology itself is, therefore, an example of an attempt to break certain kinds of rules and to aid in the establishment of a new and different consensus of what “rules” consist in our field of study. A major point that we would like our critics to remember as they reflect on our proposals is that the rules of human actions with which we are concerned are precisely “paradigmatic.” Indeed, they are intrinsic to the human body instrument and to the displacement space in which it moves as an integrated system and we never lose sight of this. Thus, the transitive rules of the kind we deal with can only be changed—they cannot be “broken.” And without the particular brand of rules that we call “intransitive structures,” we would be obliged to move our researches to another planet—one without gravity, where creatures had Janus-like bodies and Cyclopean eyesight, perhaps?


This essay was originally published in Semantic Anthropology, ASA Monographs 22 (1982). Edited by David Parkin. London: Academic Press.

1 In the literature of functional anthropology, ritual and the dance were conceived of as “special” forms of human actions. Furthermore, they have often been defined as systems of actions related to “mystical ideas and beliefs.” Whether or not the dance and ritual actions should be classified as “special” is one problem. That they are irrevocably bound up with conceptual systems and ideologies is obvious. It would not be difficult to defend the proposition that the terms “dance,” “ritual,” “idea,” and “belief” are synonymous in important ways, if (and only if) “dance” and “ritual” are thought of in human “person” terms. And they are not usually thought of in this way; metaphorical usages of both terms indicate the opposite. In the case of the alleged “dances” of birds, bees, and primates, for example, the terms are employed to mean biologically rooted, organized animal behaviours, of an instinctive, impulsive kind, when, for instance, the creatures are defending a territory, attracting a mate, and the like. If these organized behaviours are “performances” in a human sense, then why do they never take place out of season, and on what ideas and concepts are they based? Where are the creatures’ accounts of them?

2 Additional discussion occurs in the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (JASHM) at New York University. There are in existence so far five issues; the sixth is in preparation. The journal is produced by members of the Society for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, also at New York University. The special issue referred to in the text is vol. 1, no. 4, Autumn, 1981.

3 The rather broad, ambiguous term “movement” is, for a start, separated into two fields, i.e., “behaviours” which are taken to imply mechanical, causal accounts of movements that are appropriate when agency is either absent, or in a human being, destroyed temporarily or permanently. “Actions” are, by contrast, taken to be movements or comprehensive sets of movements that have agency, that is, intentions, language-use, meanings, rules. Thus, there are organisms and/or animals that “behave” and there are animals which can monitor their behaviour on an elementary or first-order level in terms of their movements. However, human beings are conceived of here as agents whose actions reflect a hierarchy of powers. That is to say that human actions are couched in a system consisting of reflexivity, simply stated as people possessing the power to be conscious of being conscious of being conscious—and so on. From a semasiological point of view, then, we may say that animals “live” or “exist” but human beings have conceptions of living or existing and because of this they act.” They do not merely “behave.” It follows that “to act” is to be able to have models of “behaving.” For further discussion on the term “behaviour,” see Ardener 1973. For differences between the sciences of ethology and anthropology, see Callan 1970.

4 These considerations lead to questions like “Do human beings live, in reality, in continuous spaces and continuous times?” There are only a limited number of formal possibilities available (cf. Harré 1970: 184) (metrics); 1970: 246-47 (event and duration); 1970: 286-93 (continuity of time);

a) continuous space/continuous time
b) discrete space/discrete time
c) continuous space/discrete time
d) discrete space/continuous time

There are two separate questions involved here: one is a philosophical question which, although discussable, is far from anthropological or physical science concerns—that is the general question of whether space/time is by nature continuous or discontinuous. The anthropological question in hand is the more pragmatic problem of the association of numbers with length and duration--a problem immediately perceivable in the use of a transcription system for movement. “Time,” in other words, is so often “spatialized” in a specious sense. Adequate discussion would require more space than is available, but it is important to note the profound level of issues that is being addressed.

5 See Williams 1975 and 1979 for definitive explanations of “action signs” and their relation to the concept of “linguistic signs.”

6 The standard work on this system is Hutchinson (1970, 2d ed).

7 The major exponent of an “emic-etic” approach to the study of human movement and the dance is the American anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler. Only two of her many valuable contributions are listed here (1972 and 1978) and it would be inappropriate to attempt a facile definition of the approach she uses. Suffice it to say that like a “semiotic approach,” the term “emic-etic” indicates a general linguistic-anthropological school of thought regarding the study of culture not designed to handle movement per se. Kaeppler is, however, a spokesman for the American ethno-scientific approach to human movement studies and “units” of movement in that context are explicitly handled in Kaeppler (1972).

The “motif-morphology” of units of movement are thoroughly discussed in Kurti (1980), as they exist in the Hungarian school of dance “folkloristics,” in a system for dealing directly with movement that was originated by Molnar (1947). Major contemporary exponents of this highly developed cast European school of thought are Martin and Pesovar (1961), who propound a type of “structural analysis” that does not deal with the semantic content of the dances: “On the whole, it is more akin to phonological analysis in linguistics and in fact can be seen to derive from traditional descriptive linguistics” (Kurti 1980: 45).

8 The term “non-vocal” rather than “non-verbal” is used here for reasons that are made more explicit later. Among some movement specialists, the term “non-verbal” is now used as if it were semantically neutral, but we cannot assent to this because of the many positivistic and behaviouralist overtones that are suggested.

9 Research in hand includes the transcription, into Labanotation, of American Sign Language and an analysis of these composite signs compared with written texts in finger-spelling, alphabet forms. Comparative textual analysis of deaf-signing with the hasta-mudra system is in progress as is the development of a phrase-structure grammar for the idiom of ballet dancing. Some interest exists in the general notion of the conversion of scripts and of the morphology of action sign material that is implied in the usage of English verbs.

10 Semasiology’s predecessors include (a) kinesics: Birdwhistell 1970; (b) proxemics: Hall 1966a and b; (c) standard kinesiological approaches, exemplified by Fitt (1979) . . . [and] Vinje-Morpurgo (1979). . . ; (d) standard behaviouristic approaches, exemplified by Argyle (1970) and Graham and Argyle (1975); (e) ethological approaches, exemplified by Hewes (1955) and Peng (1978); (f) statistical approaches, exemplified by Lomax et al., criticized in Williams (1974). We have mentioned above the “emic-etic” style of analysis used by Kaeppler and the East European school of dance folkloristics and hold these, plus the work of Stokoe (1980), Kurath (1960) and Keali'inohomoku (1972 and 1980) to be of particular significance. Two exponents of “dance anthropology” are Hanna (1979) and Royce (1977).

11 Kinology, in our context, refers to different kinds of analysis that are done for different purposes, but a kinological study is so designated because it always means one thing: it is semantically null. That is, for whatever purposes, the meanings of movements can be disregarded temporarily for a specific analytical purpose. An example of one kind of kinological approach is that used by Myers (1981), where the meanings of moves are disregarded for the purpose of uncovering certain grammatical and syntactical features of the American Foxtrot.

12 It is difficult not to use one’s technical terminology, especially when it has been designed to disambiguate methodological confusion. However, I have tried to exercise great restraint in this paper. Suffice it to say, therefore, that, in semasiological analysis, we use a sophisticated array of “p-structural” and “P-structural” formulations that are essential to our analyses of highly complex material and that the usage of the term here merely points to, but in no way develops, the concept. One usage is, however, outlined in Ardener 1978: that of p/s structural analysis.

13 A “kineseme” roughly corresponds to a “morpheme” as used in linguistics and its denotative characteristics are no more strictly defined or definable. The one criteria that must be met is that a kineseme can never be less than a whole body position. Expressions of bodily parts are called “kinemes.” By no means a satisfactory explanation, for this short paper, the notion of parts/whole and kineme/kineseme may be associated.

14 See Williams (1980: 119-22) for elements of spatial deixis in the idiom of ballet French.

15 This particular formulation (somewhat expanded) was used by Best in a seminar for SASHM (The Society for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement) in January 1981. His book Philosophy and Human Movement [1978] was reviewed in Ethnomusicology (Williams 1980) and is a distinct and positive influence on semasiological theory and practice, since the work stems from a general position of language philosophy.

16 “The notion of deixis (which is merely the Greek word for ‘pointing’ or ‘indicating’—it has become a technical term of grammatical theory) is introduced to handle the ‘orientational’ features of language which are relative to time and place of utterance” (Lyons 1968: 275). The term seemed particularly apt for many specific elements of human body languages. In our context, the concept is used mainly for features of direction, location, orientation and force.

17 This is not to say, of course, that “knowing” simply consists of rule acquisition, but that in “learning” looked at as a process, rule-acquisition is built into the process insofar as human actions are concerned. It follows from our construal of human beings as members of a self-defining species, because of their semantic powers, that any discipline concerned with the study of human activity considered as inherently meaningful must be concerned with the rule-bound actions of persons in a shared moral (ethical or semantic) space. Although the point may seem obvious, because it is how we really think about people and interact with them, it seems that, in many of the social sciences, there exist attempts to avoid the issue of meaning and there are many who try to steer clear of the problems involved. See Bhaskar 1975: 240ff for a discussion of reductionism and underdevelopment in the social sciences.

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