Alan Rumsey and Robert Attenborough

From atop a red hill in Central Australia: Antipodean reflections on the life and work of Adam Kendon

In this presentation we will provide an overall retrospective and appreciation of the life and work of Adam Kendon, with particular emphasis on his Australian-based research and on our personal experiences with Adam both in Australia and later on.


Heather Brookes (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

Gesture: An ecological perspective


Olga Capirci (ISTC-CNR, Rome. ITALY)

Adam Kendon and his offer of a bridge towards a new and challenging landscape.

Adam Kendon wasn’t one among a multitude of the research experts that we may have looked up to, but the essential leading figure for a generation of researchers that, like myself, considered, and still consider, everyday language as (in Kendon’s own words): “involving the mobilization of several different semiotic systems in different modalities”.
I had the great fortune and honor of knowing Adam from the times when I was a young scholar, of collaborating with him in some projects and until a few months before his departure of having interesting email exchanges with him.
Many years ago, when I was still a very young researcher characterized, as many young minds, by a certain rigidity, I was keen on defining the exact boarder between gesture and action.
Talking about it with Adam, he offered me a practical question: what’s the difference between representing something like a bridge with your hands, or using objects casually present on a table in front of you?
He said: “Look” and made a BRIDGE gesture with his hands; “Now look at this” and he built a bridge with some objects on my desk: “What’s the difference?”
The memory of his question and examples has haunted my mind for a very long time. And if today, I can argue that we should look for a continuum between action, gestures and signs rather than a ‘boarder, if now I think that there is no clear-cut line between language and action, it is because of Adam Kendon and his offer of a bridge towards a new and challenging landscape.


Ian Cross (University of Cambridge, UK)

Music and speech as affiliative communicative interaction

Although I came to know Adam well when he retired to live in Cambridge, I first encountered him in the early 2000s in a series of workshops on entrainment.  His interest in the dynamics of communicative gesture prompted me to start thinking about overlaps between speech and music as real-time communicative media, giving rise to the question of whether music and speech should be considered as distinct as modes of face-to-face communicative interaction. This led to experiments on musical and conversational interaction in Cambridge and in Chile, in collaboration with a phonetician, Sarah Hawkins, and a group in Santiago led by the psychologist Carlos Cornejo. Our results suggested that interaction in music and in affiliative speech registers are most likely underpinned by the same processes, involving temporal coordination around a regular pulse, pitch matching or imitation, and close coupling of (generally periodic) movement.  This has led me to the conclusion that musical interaction and affiliative, phatic speech are best conceived of as manifestations of a superordinate domain of affiliative multimodal communicative interaction.  Parameters generally regarded as proper to musical structure such as pitch and periodic rhythm can then be thought of as constituting affordances for the achievement of affective and attitudinal alignment in interaction and as active in both phatic speech and music.  The finding that multi-parametric entrainment and pitch matching are central to effective coordination in communicative interaction suggests that interacting through the medium of remote technologies such as Zoom that introduce intrinsic and variable delay is likely to disrupt both musical and speech communication. Experiments by others have shown that conversational interaction is indeed significantly disrupted by the presence of delay; recent experiments in Cambridge have shown similar effects for musical interaction, but have also shown that specific strategies can be deployed to reduce the detrimental effects of the technological mediation of communicative interaction.


Jennifer Gerwing (Akershus University Hospital & Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway)

Mentoring independent junior scholarship: A fine balance

For young researchers, there’s a vulnerable space between the safety of a senior scholar’s nest and being fully fledged. At that point of burgeoning independence, criticism is necessary for quality and growth, but it can be felt particularly keenly and can crush creativity. In this presentation, I share a concrete illustration of my first leap off the side of the nest. Adam Kendon and Janet Bavelas- each in their own way- found the right balance in their mentorship. While the illustration is personal, their efforts can be generalized into broader considerations for how to mentor young scholars, who might be awkward, overly ambitious, or unfocused in their first forays into academia.  


Maria Graziano (Lund University, Sweden)

From mentor to friend: a tribute to “il mio professore”.

Jennifer Green (The University of Melbourne, Australia)

Investigating the signed languages of Aboriginal Australia

The original signed languages of Australia’s Indigenous peoples are predominantly used by hearing people as an alternative to speech when speech is either impractical or disallowed for cultural reasons. Much of what we know about these languages flows from Adam Kendon’s research, conducted in Central Australia between 1978 and 1986. His twice-published, prize-winning book Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives is the foundational guide to these practices. Adam pioneered the use of film, and then video, in language documentation. His original recordings, including sign from at least five distinct language communities, comprise more than fifty hours of archived material. I first met Adam in 1984 when he was working on sign with Anmatyerr people in Central Australia. Later he became a mentor, and an examiner of my PhD dissertation. My last conversation with Adam in 2020 was the kind of quasi face-to-face interaction afforded by Zoom. From Cambridge he joined a Warlpiri meeting in a remote Australian community to discuss making his Warlpiri sign language dictionary more available. Adam approved. He said he was pleased about proposals to give the video dictionary the technological make-over required to make this happen. In this contribution I reflect on the legacy of Adam’s research on Australian alternate sign. Some advances in methods and technologies and a broader geographical research footprint are reflected in recent research by several teams across the country. However, many of Adam’s original observations are vindicated, a testament to the acuteness of his eye and the rigor of his scholarship.


Marianne Gullberg (Lund University, Sweden)

Gestures, language, learning, and the Kendonian refusal of dichotomies


David McNeill (University of Chicago, Illinois, US)

Growth points and Wide Semiotic-Webs: An email conversation with Adam.

In my 50 years of comradeship with Adam, we had many agreements and some disagreements.  Of the agreements, his endorsement of the concept of the growth point was important to me; of the disagreements, his disavowal of imagery-language dialectic was more important.  I see it as arising from the different worlds of meaning in which we worked. From the beginning of my studies of gesture in 1980, my ambition was to explore the cognitive psycholinguistic side of gesture and language. Adam was studying the social/cultural side.  The dialectic makes sense on my side but little on Adam’s. This inspired me to seek arguments to explain the dialectic in a way that would be understood on both sides. My talk in memory of Adam presents what I have found, and expresses my debt to him for inspiring it by questioning it.  Adam and I agree that complementarity is required; recognizing that two sides are involved. This opens the way for them to coexist. As my title suggests, I align the two realms.  Adam’s wide semiotic-web belongs to the social-cultural world and my growth point to the world of mind and language. The talk digs deeply into the growth point and explains why the dialectic is inseparable from language.  It reveals aspects of the growth point that parallel the wide semiotic-web itself. To me, finding complementarity across the divide is a fitting memorial to Adam’s influence as a beacon on the social/cultural side.

Cornelia Müller (Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany)

Gesture families: Evolving networks of proto-linguistic patterns in the visual modality of gestural body movements?


Mandana Seyfeddinipur (Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and the Endangered Languages Archive, Berlin Brandenburgische Academy of Sciences)

Teaching minds, touching lives: Adam's legacy.


Kita Sotaro (University of Warwick, UK)

The origin of “co-speech gesture” and qualitative gesture research in the Gesture Project at Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics


Jürgen Streeck (The University of Texas, Austin, US)

Homo Faber’s Languaging

Building on his own interpretation—the final framing that Adam Kendon gave his work on gesture in his posthumous selected papers—I interpret Kendon’s work on gesture as an answer to the big questions about humanity as a self-made, self-making species that were first raised during the Age of Enlightenment: let us assume for the sake of argument that there is no God who has made the world—how could humanity have made itself as a speaking, thinking, technologically savvy community? While he did not see himself in the continental ‘tradition of Condillac’ (Aarsleff 1974), I believe that the dimensions of Kendon’s contribution can be best assessed in this context. His work (complemented by Charles Goodwin’s Co-Operative Action; 2017), is the answer of today’s anthropology to the Enlightenment’s questions.

Kendon regarded his work as being about mechanisms or practices, cutting across modalities (vocal and manual), by which instrumental bodily actions are transformed into communicative signs. Human languaging is a consequence and application of the broader capacity of the human animal to engage with the world of things—of our identity as homo faber and of the centrality of the hands to it. For example, many “speech associated manual gestures … are schematic versions of actions we do when acting on or with actual physical objects. We grasp things, lift them up, put them in a different place, … throw them or pick them up, deal with them in a delicate … or rough way” (Three Modalities, p. 517). The desires and skills to take hold of and physically engage with the world did not disappear when the human animal began to build and inhabit virtual, symbolic, discursive worlds, but provided and continues to provide the matrix for their interpretation.

Most Enlightenment thinkers were fully invested in the categorical difference between humans and other animals, a Christian legacy. Adam Kendon was not. To the contrary, he was particularly interested in domains where the abilities and sensibilities of human and non-human animals approximate and intersect with one another and in how empathy and conviviality are possible between unlike species. Adam Kendon himself, this is certain, observed the behaviors of homo sapiens (homo faber) with the equanimity of a cat.

Aarsleff, H. (1974). The tradition of Condillac: The problem of the origin of language in the eighteenth century and the debate in the Berlin Academy before Herder. In D. Hymes (ed.) Studies in the History of Linguistics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Goodwin, C. (2018). Co-Operative Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kendon, A. (to appear). Three Modalities of Languaging: Speaking, Gesturing, Signing. Selected Essays 1972–2022. Amsterdam: Benjamins.


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