Do speakers intend their gestures to communicate? Central as this question is to the study of gesture, researchers cannot seem to agree on the answer. According to one common framing, gestures are an “unwitting” window into the mind (McNeill, 1992); but, according to another common framing, they are designed along with speech to form “composite utterances” (Enfield, 2009). These two framings correspond to two cultures within gesture studies – the first cognitive and the second interactive in orientation – and they appear to make incompatible claims. In this article I attempt to bridge the cultures by developing a distinction between foreground gestures and background gestures. Foreground gestures are designed in their particulars to communicate a critical part of the speaker’s message; background gestures are not designed in this way. These are two fundamentally different kinds of gesture, not two different ways of framing the same monolithic behavior. Foreground gestures can often be identified by one or more of the following hallmarks: they are produced along with demonstratives; they are produced in the absence of speech; they are co-organized with speaker gaze; and they are produced with conspicuous effort. The distinction between foreground and background gestures helps dissolve the apparent tension between the two cultures: interactional researchers have focused on foreground gestures and elevated them to the status of a prototype, whereas cognitive researchers have done the same with background gestures. The distinction also generates a number of testable predictions about gesture production and understanding, and it opens up new lines of inquiry into gesture across child development and across cultures.
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