Professor Leelo Keevallik discusses how bodily components can play a role in sentence structure. 

On Friday morning, I attended a virtual lecture hosted by the Teacher’s College at Columbia University, specifically The Language and Social Interaction Working Group (LANSI). The event’s featured speaker was Leelo Keevallik, a professor in language and culture at Linköping University, Sweden. Her lecture was centered around syntax, the multimodality of language and the application of bodily skills. Having never given much thought to the function of one’s body in language, other than in formal settings such as speeches, I waited eagerly to hear what Professor Keevallik had to say on the matter.

She began with the widely accepted claim that human interaction is multimodal in that there are many intricacies involved in the medium of language. Her main argument rested on the idea that we should not ignore structures that involve the body; for example, when someone is speaking, we should not just focus on what is going on vocally but with the rest of the body as well. What we say and how we say it may depend on what we are doing with our body (sitting or harvesting fruit, for example). Professor Keevallik advanced this claim by explaining how she had journeyed into the Estonian countryside and recorded dialects. She would ask people to quit what they were doing (most often they were making hay or growing vegetables) and she would record their dialects. She noticed that the syntactic structures used in conversation while being recorded were not the same as structures the stylistic speakers would use while working in the fields or while fishing. To Professor Keevallik, this difference in structure suggested that bodies had a role in the way we speak. 

To further her point, she showed us a series of dancing videos, demonstrating this idea that grammar projection can be fulfilled by the body. At first, I was a bit confused on what this idea actually displays, but Professor Keevallik broke it down very clearly. She took this short snippet of a group dance lesson (they were learning the Lindy Hop), drawing particular emphasis on the part where the professor says “There is the da da da da.” Right after the instructor says the word “the”, he begins to dance thus giving the audience (those taking the class) a bodily demonstration. Professor Keevallik explained that one would expect that a definite article such as “the” would project a noun, but, rather than giving us a noun, the instructor simply completes the sentence with a bodily demonstration (the dance), not by verbal reasoning. The audience reacts not after “the” but after the demonstration because they understand what the instructor is doing. This phenomenon demonstrates how the body is part of our syntactic structure of conversation. And while that sounds like a complicated idea, after having seen the many videos Professor Keevallik gave as evidence, I realized that I experience this sensation on a daily basis. It is so integrated into my daily life I don’t even consider it as grammatically incorrect or rather, as Professor Keevallik argues, a part of grammar. 

Another example Professor Keevallik gave was of how bodily demonstrations can transform “instead of” from an abstract conceptual device to having purpose between embodied preparations. In another clip, the dance instructor says, while gesturing to his dance partner, “I’m only asking her, would you do a tuck turn?” and his partner completes the correct dance move. Immediately after the completion of the move, he adds “instead of”, as a signal that his dance partner should perform an incorrect move. After the move is performed, the audience laughs. Professor Keevallik argued that the laugh after the demonstration is complete is evidence that the sentence is only complete not after the last words are uttered but rather after the performance. She insisted that this is evidence of how multimodal communication in some activities requires that our bodies act as central grammatical components rather than words themselves. 

Throughout her lecture, she implied that the idea of the body being a part of grammar and syntax aren’t widely accepted beliefs held by linguists. And although I have not done any sort of further study in linguistics, Professor Keevallik made a widely compelling argument. Other videos she showed the attendees including an exercise class, and she mentioned how many language teachers inadvertently also employ this sort of phenomenon. After attending this lecture, I found myself more cognizant of how I was employing my body as a grammatical agent and how others were too. For example, I found that if I was cooking something, I was more inclined to use short phrases or even incomplete sentences in response to any questioned directed my way. But, when doing something more conversational like enjoying a meal with someone, I would not.  

Probably what I found most compelling about her argument, was how she used transcripts, visual media, and diagrams to portray her point. She wouldn’t just show us a video of people dancing and talk over it. She rather broke it down into multiple elements, which truly drove home the idea that there is a multimodality in communication involving both the body and the words that we speak.   

grammar magnified via pixabay