Why do Italian people use so many hand gestures when they speak?

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September 5, 2012 by JL Walker

A view of the water from one of Venice's many bridges“We shall be seeing.” Lysene trader Salladhor Saan from the Game of Thrones books and TV show, speaks a little differently from most of the other characters in the novels because he is probably not speaking his native language. He is like merchants throughout history who have always needed to communicate with different kinds of people in order to do business and earn their living. Traders like Salladhor travel all around the Free Cities, the slave cities and even to Westeros, where most of the action of the books takes place.

In his fantasy novels Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin has created a world of his own. Like all good fantasy and sci-fi, the reason it’s so good is that there are so many elements from our world in his imaginary one. Without going into what each place in Westeros and the Free Cities might represent in our world (I believe that each city or area has elements from multiple real world places), these different places do create cultural differences that are similar to differences found on earth. Some of the characters in the series are from outside the Seven Kingdoms and therefore speak differently from the people who are native to those lands.

What do Lys and Westeros have to do with Italians and hand gestures? Let me try to explain where I’m going.

Martin’s imaginary world has traders and merchants speaking a foreign language and trading with people from different parts of their world. This is much like Italy, a country with a long history of trading with other peoples. A country surrounded by water, it’s famous for the merchant ports of Venice, Genoa and Naples, and there have been various wars and foreign rule throughout the history of the peninsula. Once again, similar to my explanation for why Italian beauracracy is so complicated, geography comes into play.

All of this mixing with other populations resulted in a need for the Italian people to be able communicate with others who don’t speak their own language. And how can you sell beautiful Italian silk or shoes if you don’t have the right vocabulary? One place to start is to use hand gestures to get your point across.

Nowadays, gesturing is really part of the Italian language. Hand gestures are used to compliment spoken language very often, and can even be used to replace words. Imagine you’re in a loud bar and you want to communicate with a friend, saying, “It’s too crowded, I’m hungry, let’s go!” You can do that in Italian, no problem, with just three hand gestures.

There are some hand gestures used in Italian that are used in the US too, like the crazy person “screw loose” sign, the tummy rubbing yummy sign, and others. Then there are some that are similar, but different.

Case in point. A few years ago, I was in Venice with my then-boyfriend (now husband) and we were browsing some shops scattered around the narrow streets. It was during Carnevale, so there were lots of people around. A few doors down, my boyfriend looked at me and started gesturing, using almost his entire arm to make a sweeping, downward motion with elbow bent. I thought he was motioning for me to move back (maybe he wanted to take a picture and I needed to be further back, who knows). I started walking away. He was actually motioning for me to come closer to him so I could hear the song that was playing in a store nearby. So of course my reaction caused a bit of a misunderstanding.

Crowded square with view of the Doge's PalaceIn the US, to say “come here,” I would put my palm up and move my fingers towards me (think Neo in The Matrix). Or just using my index finger. That’s not the case in Italy, where you can motion downwards with your hand, or even your whole arm, to ask someone to come closer.

Italian people are famous for using their hands when they speak, but if you can’t decipher the code, there can be cause for confusion. When I was learning Italian, one of my professors taught the class about hand gestures. Looking back on that lesson, I’ve realized it was an important one! I guess I wasn’t paying attention when he talked about the “come here” motion.

There’s so much more to be said about Italian hand gestures, because there really are so many of them. But the reason they have developed and become a part of the Italian language is the same reason traders from the Free Cities learn the Common Tongue in Westeros: communication across various cultures is fundamental for savvy businessmen who need to sell a ship full of goods. And what better way to get your point across than using your hands and body to communicate with your customers?

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3 thoughts on “Why do Italian people use so many hand gestures when they speak?

  1. […] Why do Italian people use so many hand gestures when they speak? (americanitalian.wordpress.com) […]

  2. This is great and so so true. Have you seen the design book by Munari about hand gestures entitled “Supplemento al dizionario italiano?” Totally charming. I love your explanation. Is that your own theory? Or have you read that in history books. It seems totally plausible to me, and the best explanation I’ve heard yet.

    • JL Walker says:

      I wish I could cite where I heard this explanation, but I don’t remember! I love talking about these cultural differences with friends and people I meet, so I might owe it to one of those people, but then again, I might have read it somewhere too. I’ll definitely check out the “Supplemento”. So far I’ve only seen a few cartoonish images explaining various meanings of Italian hand gestures.
      Thanks for your comment!

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