Italy, land of 250 hand gestures: Nation now uses that many in everyday conversation
- Gestures originated in Naples are now internationally recognised
- Complex system of gestures began in 14th century to mark territory
- Best known gesture of pushing fingertips together and cupping palms is used by Silvio Berlusconi
PUBLISHED: 17:32 EST, 1 July 2013 | UPDATED: 18:37 EST, 1 July 2013
Form of expression: This gesture is commonly used by Silvio Berlusconi as a sign of disbelief
Waving your hands in the air is as undeniably Italian as buffalo mozzarella, bankruptcy and bunga bunga.
But the well known tradition of gesturing is not just an expression of their extensive range of emotions – Italians use around 250 distinct hand signals in everyday conversation, experts have revealed.
Gestures, most of which originated in Naples, generally include fingers flying horizontally from the chin, exaggerated shrugs and upheld palms, and lots of exasperated cries and raised eyebrows.
Some are offensive – meaning ‘gay’ or ‘cuckold’. But many are mundane: ‘can I have a cigarette’, ‘call me’. Or ‘tastes good’, virtually all now internationally recognised gestures.
Perhaps the best known is the one used regularly by Silvio Berlsuconi to express disbelief at the stupidity of what someone is saying.
The hands are slightly cupped, with the finger tips forming upward-pointing cones which are shaken more or less violently, depending on the degree of exasperation.
Very common in Naples, it translates as ‘What do you want?’
Professor of psychology at Roma Tre University and an expert on gestures, Isabella Poggi has identified 250 individual signs, that she says are akin to a language in their own right.
The signs can have quite complex meanings, she told the NY Times; ‘There are gestures expressing a threat or a wish or desperation or shame or pride,’ she said.
The only thing that separates hand gestures from sign language is that they are used individually, she said.
No one knows for certain why the system of gestures developed.
One theory is that Italians developed them as an secret language of communication during centuries of foreign occupation — by Austria, France and Spain in the 14th through 19th centuries, Professor Poggi said.
And in busy cities like Naples, gesturing was a way of marking one’s territory. ‘To get attention, people gestured and used their whole bodies,’ she added.
Hand gesturing appears to be an ancient phenomenon. Gestures used by the figures painted on ancient Greek vases found in the Naples area can be easily compared to those used by today’s Neapolitans.
Italian writer Italo Svevo wrote in a letter to his wife from England in 1901.
‘It seems that in this country, I’m actually a laughing stock on account of my way of gesturing… Hands in pockets – only then can you speak English.’
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