Monday, April 6, 2015

Endearing Italian hand gestures have deep roots in culture, upbringing

Italians are famous for talking with their hands, an endearing trait that likely has its roots in historical necessity. Professoressa Isabella Poggi of Roma Tre Ponti Università has identified some 250 gestures that Italians use in everyday conversations.



“When you are in Italy, you need to go on the street, in the markets, in the square and just watch the faces, the hands and the body of the people,” said film maker Luca Vullo of Caltanissetta, Sicily. “I think the Italian people are more physical; it is in our blood.”

Hand gestures may be more important in Italian culture than in any other, Poggi said in an interview with BBC. “We inherited the language of gestures from the Greeks,” she said. “When the Greeks moved to southern Italy and colonized Naples, the Italians used gestures as a way to communicate without being overheard. The gestures continued to have a tradition as a way of communicating.”

The importance of talking with the hands may have begun with the Greeks, but throughout the centuries, Italy has possibly been ruled by more foreign invaders than any other country. With new rulers came the need to communicate with hand signals. How else could the native Italics have spoken with the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Islamic Arabs, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Spaniards, Catalans and other foreign powers who occupied important parts of Italy?

“Italy is the most genetically diverse country in Europe,” said Alfio DiMauro, a specialist in Italian culture and a tour guide with Rick Steves Europe. “And Sicily is the most genetically diverse region in Italy.” Thus it is no coincidence that Southern Italians, and particularly Sicilians, are known to use hand gestures more than their northern counterparts.

Italians, especially in southern Italy, can’t help but use the voice of the body to communicate,” Vullo said. “The reasons are historical and cultural, thanks to the numerous invasions, but certainly our temperament and our innate histrionic qualities contributed to this magical and articulate language.”

Some also believe that the hand signals were ways that the natives could communicate among themselves without their overlords understanding.
It’s true that Italians sometimes use hand gestures to communicate with each other in such a way that others can not understand the message,” Vullo said, “and sometimes Italians can say one thing verbally and completely contradict it with gestures. The fascinating thing is that (this combination) can only be understood by who know the language code.”

“In cities that were so crowded, like those in Southern Italy, there was a type of need to compete to attract attention to oneself,” Poggi said. Over the centuries, languages have changed, but sign language has remained. “Gestures change less than words,” Poggi said.

Italian hand communication can sometimes be dangerous. In 2012, a man making a gesture struck a woman in a piazza in Puglia and was found liable for civil damages by Italy’s highest court, according to the New York Times. “The public street isn’t a living room,” the court ruled. “The habit of accompanying a conversation with gestures, while certainly lawful, become unlawful” in some contexts.”

Vullo earned numerous cinematic awards for his 2012 docudrama La Voce del Corpo, The Voice of the Body (see below), and he also holds workshops on Italian non-verbal communication. Vullo describes the video as “a joyful, instructive perspective on that peculiar non-verbal code of communication that makes Sicilians (and Italians) famous throughout the world. The Voice of the Body is a quintessential ‘made in Sicily’ work: the film crew was composed exclusively by Sicilian professionals, and its soundtrack was realized by Sicilian bands and composers.”
The video below is Vullo’s original, with only spoken Italian. Unfortunately, I can't find an online version with English subtitles.



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