"How Politicians Express Different Viewpoints in Gesture and Speech Simultaneously." The Journal of Cognitive Linguistics, 2017.

Guilbeault, Douglas
Research Area: 

This article discusses how politicians express different viewpoints in gesture, alongside different viewpoints in speech, simultaneously. It unpacks the insights this phenomena contains about multimodal cognition. In particular, it argues that the implicit-explicit divide in attention that structures multimodal communication, where gesture is implicit and speech is explicit, possesses inherent rhetorical affordances. The capacity to inject gestural viewpoint implicitly into the interpretation of explicit, verbal viewpoint is an example of a rhetorical affordance that is likely to be activated not only in political debate, but also in everyday discourse.


Political speeches are a prime example of how discourse often requires speakers to convey multiple competing viewpoints, both their own and others’. Cognitive linguists have shown how, in speech, speakers express viewpoint through individual choices at the lexical and grammatical level. Recently, cognitive linguists have also shown that speakers express viewpoint using speech-accompanying gestures. To date, the study of viewpoint expression has focused on cases where speakers deliver the same viewpoint across modalities. By examining the persuasive uses of gesture in Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech, I show how speakers can communicate multiple different viewpoints across gesture and speech, simultaneously. There are moments when Obama expresses his opponents’ viewpoint in speech, while framing them in terms of his own viewpoint in gesture, and vice versa. I discuss how the deviation of viewpoints across modalities provides key insights into multimodal cognition, with respect to working memory, metaphor, and persuasion. Specifically, I argue that, as an implicit medium, gesture allows speakers to inject viewpoint into the uptake of speech, below the conscious radar of recipients, and I discuss how this rhetorical capacity is evolving as a result of communication technologies.