Directions and signs in Guugu Yimithirr

Haviland considers nonverbal gestures when studying indexical signs. He aims to find the discursive preconditions that lead to the use of gestures in communication. His fieldwork was done in the Hopevale aboriginal community located in Queensland. The language they use is called Guugu Yimithirr.

In Guugu Yimithirr a system of cardinal directions plays a central part when dealing with location terminology. A point called origo (that means “reference point”) stands opposite of a goal; to indicate a cardinal direction one should use the trajectory between these two points as a reference. To master this system, a good sense of direction or a compass at hand are required. The Guugu Yimithirr terms assume quadrants rather than idealized points on the horizon. If something is westward, it lies in the western quadrant of the space in which one is centered, rather than, say, on a vector running towards the west. When someone gestures south and he’s describing a boat, he may be understood to be referring to a point south not from where he is at that moment, but from the boat he is describing.

After describing this directional system, Haviland talks about the gestures used for pointing, referencing and orientating oneself in Guugu Yimithirr. What Kendon refers to as gesticulation is classified into four categories: iconic gestures, metaphoric gestures, beats and deictic gestures. Iconic gestures depict objects, events, and aspects of events in the narrative; metaphoric gestures depict the vehicle of a metaphor; beats are “formless” gestures, often synchronized with the rhythmic structure of utterances; deictic gestures are gestures that “point.” Such gestures cannot be iconic because they do not in any way resemble their referents.



Kendon, A. (1988). Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives. Cambridge University Press.

Haviland, J. B. (1993). Anchoring, iconicity, and orientation in Guugu Yimithirr pointing gestures. Journal of linguistic anthropology, 3(1), 3-45.

[Sandro Cagnin/LING566]

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