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Review of  Nonverbal Communication Across Disciplines

Reviewer: Sherida Altehenger-Smith
Book Title: Nonverbal Communication Across Disciplines
Book Author: Fernando Poyatos
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable
Issue Number: 14.1023

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Date: Sun, 6 Apr 2003 10:49:36 EDT
From: Sherida Altehenger-Smith
Subject: Nonverbal Communication Across Disciplines, Volumes 1, 2 and 3

Poyatos, Fernando (2002) Nonverbal Communication across Disciplines,
Volume 1: Culture, Sensory Interaction, Speech, Conversation; Volume 2:
Paralanguage, Kinesics, Silence, Personal and Environmental Interaction;
Volume 3: Narrative Literature, Theater, Cinema, Translation, John Benjamins
Publishing Company.

Sherida Altehenger-Smith, International Department, University of Karlsruhe,

The announcements for these three volumes can be found at: (Volume 1) (Volume 2) (Volume 3)

Non-verbal communication is not only an important academic field of research
but has also become a popular theme of many "advice books". F. Poyatos three
volume edition offers a highly explicit taxonomy of non-verbal communication
in all of its facets. In his general introduction to the whole edition,
Poyatos states that non-verbal communication is in its very nature
interdisciplinary and should be examined as a tripartite "what we say-how
we say it-how we move it" -- activity of speech. He defines communication as
"the emissions of signs by all the nonlexical, artifactual and environmental
sensible sign systems contained in the realm of a culture, whether
individually or in mutual construction, and whether or not those emissions
constitute behavior or generate personal interaction". (Vol. 1, xvii)

The seriousness and in depth treatment shown in Poyatos' study can be seen in
the scope of the three volumes of "Nonverbal Communication across
Disciplines" and their corresponding subtitles: Vol. 1: Culture, Sensory
Interaction Speech, Conversation; Vol 2: Paralanguage, Kinesics, Silence,
Personal and Environmental Interaction; Vol. 3: Narrative Literature,
Theater, Cinema, Translation. Each chapter ends with a conclusion and
twenty-five suggestions for further research at various levels. These volumes
contain a vast amount of information that can only be touched upon in this
review, not doing them justice.

Chapter 1 in volume 1, which is to be read "as an introduction to the
realistic approach to language and its associated nonverbal behaviors" (Vol.
1: 27), defines culture as "a series of habits shared by members of a group
living in a geographic area, learned but biologically conditioned, such as the means of communication (language being the basis of them all), social relations at different levels, the various activities of daily life, the products of that group and how they are utilized, the peculiar manifestations of both individual and national personalities (in their cultural context, its patterns and prohibitions), and their ideas concerning their own existence and their fellow people (men)" (1:2).

Based on the assumption that culture is communication, culture is understood
as a communication continuum consisting of active and passive, interactive
and non-interactive forms. This concept proves useful to both collect and
differentiate living cultural subjects (active) and non living objects
(passive) as for instance people in interaction dealing with any items,
states, symbols, rites etc. on the one hand as well as ongoing communicative
exchange between an emitters of signs and the respective receivers
(interactive) and "a delayed transmission of codified information"
(non-interactive) on the other hand, with all categories being broken down to
allow for further differentiation. Attention is then drawn to inherited
(genetic) habits in opposition to learned (cultural) habits through space
(keyword: behavioral geography) and time as the temporal dimension of such
geography. The next step is concerned with the perceptive modes given to
grasp the elements of the two broadest classes of activities (interactive and
non-interactive ones) within a culture: sensible (by senses) and intelligible
(by mind) presenting classified examples in an elaborated figure.

To provide means for a systematic analysis of culture, Poyatos continues by
introducing an interdisciplinary model of "culturemes", defining a cultureme
as "any portion of cultural activity or non-activity perceived through sensible
and intelligible signs with symbolic value and susceptible of being broken
down into smaller units or amalgamated into larger ones " (1: 10), explaining the term in detail using examples from different cultures and outlining
a progressive analysis from the broader culturemes to the simplest ones.
A final note links this model to its theoretical and methodological
complement, being discussed in Volume III, based on a sign typology which
allows to carry out a progressive and exhaustive analysis of behavioral and
non-behavioral cultural manifestations -- distinguishing systems, subsystems,
categories, subcategories, forms and types -- helpful in a minute study of
communicative systems or even material components of a culture (1: 15).
In the following paragraphs the author discusses relationships among sensible
and intelligible, somatic, extra somatic and environmental systems,
illustrates barriers of intercultural communication by personal experiences,
questions the traditional language teaching ideal of acquiring fluency by
(just) verbal skills and confronting it with the (additional) need of verbal
and nonverbal cultural fluency. Reflections on the concept of verbal and
nonverbal usage and on semiotic-communicative processes of language and
nonverbal systems close this chapter.

Chapter 2 (Vol. 1) focuses on "language in the total communicative context of
its bodily and environmental systems" (1: 31), first drawing attention to a fu
ndamental consideration: "the mutual confrontation of two human bodies as two
socializing organisms", acting and interacting as emitters and receivers of
signs in and with a given environmental setting in space and time. P.
stresses the nexus of the different constituents and nets of constituents
generally relevant in communicative interaction grasping a full face-to-face
interaction as consisting of at least two "triple structures" or
language-paralanguage-kinesics compounds temporarily linked by "intersomatic
channels along which are perceived any type of personal signs". This
so-called Somatic Communication System is then graphically elaborated,
mapping "the channels of intersomatic emission and perception in interaction".

Chapter 3 outlines the audiovisual production of speech that includes two of
the three areas of main carriers of communication -- language and
paralanguage. Elements can be divided into permanent, changing, dynamic and
artificial. Poyatos considers the speaker's facial features as a fundamental
basis of speech -- although he states that these are also basic features of
kinesics. The main point is the inseparability of sound and movement

Chapter 4 is theoretically important as it defines the basis of human
communication as a triple structure "language -- paralanguage -- kinesics".
Verbal language seen as a "spoken string of words and sentences" can be
divided into its segmental layer formed by phonemes, morphemes etc and its
suprasegmental layer consisting of intonation, stress, pitch and terminal
junctures. Paralanguage or "nonverbal qualities and modifiers of voice and
independent sounds and silences" can be divided into four categories: primary
qualities which individualize: timbre, resonance, intensity or loudness,
pitch register, intonation (monotone-melodious) syllabic length and rhythm;
qualifiers which are different types of voice as i.e. whispering, hoarseness,
grunting, mumbling etc; differentiators such as laughter, crying, sighing,
panting, coughing, spitting, sneezing etc; and alternants which are word-like
utterances outside of the "official" lexicon of a language, i.e. 'Uh-hu'.
'Mm' etc. Kinesics includes "conscious and unconscious gestures, manners and
postures of visual, visual-audible, and tactile and kinesthetic perception,
isolate or in combination with words and/or paralanguage or any other somatic
or extrasomatic signs." (Vol. I: 116) Poyatos goes on to classify the
conditioning background of these three elements into Biophysico-psychological,
environmental, cultural patterns, socioeconomic-educational levels and shared

Chapters 5 through 8 provide a practical application of the theory discussed
in the preceding chapters. Chapter 5 offers a model for the analysis of
interactive speech and a discussion of the possibilities of integrating
non-verbal communication into foreign language teaching. How to identify,
observe, and study "nonverbal categories" is handled in the next chapter.
"The structure of conversation" introduces the tools necessary within the
framework of Poyatos approach for the analysis of conversation. The
importance of turn-taking and the relevance of "silence" are pointed out.
Chapter 8 develops a model for consecutive and simultaneous interpretation
involving verbal and nonverbal components. The importance of paralanguage
and emblems (defined as nonambiguous gestures) especially in intercultural
encounters is highlighted to end the first volume of the trilogy.

Volume II: Paralanguage, kinesics, silence, personal and environmental
This second volume deepens Poyatos detailed analysis of those components
involved in the nonverbal structure of speech. His first topic --
paralanguage -- is an element of the triple structure of speech,
language-paralanguage-kinesics, as discussed in Volume 1. The first four
chapters are devoted to the various elements of this most important part of
nonverbal communication. Paralanguage is defined as:

"the nonverbal voice qualities, voice modifiers and independent utterances
produced or conditioned in the areas covered by the supraglottal cavities
(from the lips and the nares to the pharynx), the laryngeal cavity and the
infraglottal cavities (lungs and esophagus), down to the abdominal muscles,
as well as the intervening momentary silences, which we consciously or
unconsciously supporting, or contradicting the verbal, kinesic, chemical,
dermal and thermal or proxemic messages, either simultaneously to or
alternating with them, in both interaction and noninteraction (Poyatos

Based on this definition segmental and non-segmental categories are
established. The primary qualities of paralanguage, the first of the
non-segmental categories, are those voice qualities that differentiate
individuals: timbre, resonance, intensity, tempo, pitch, intonation range,
rhythm. These characteristics are based on biological (e.g., age, sex),
physiological, psychological, sociocultural and occupational factors (for
example, speaking softly to patients as a doctor or yelling if working on a
construction site). These primary qualities can be modified by so-called
qualifiers or voice types. For example breathing may be controlled resulting
in aggressive speech, laryngeal control could produce soft whispering, a
creaky voice, a harsh voice, among others. The communicative importance of
the qualifiers is found in their sociocultural functions -- some being
universal and others culture specific.

Primary qualities and qualifiers occur only as modifications of verbal
utterances whereas differentiators, the third non-segmental category, cannot
only possess this quality but also function as a quasilexical item.
Laughter, crying, shouting, gasping, spitting, belching, sneezing etc, are
placed within this characterization. All these can be produced naturally,
i.e. uncontrollably, or voluntarily and some are ritualized in certain
cultures (crying during mourning). Of particular interest is the short
cross-cultural study of sneezing or better the verbal rituals attached to
this physical action

The fourth paralinguistic division is the alternants -- terms integrated into
communication as segmental elements with a lexical or quasi-lexical value.
Examples would be utterances like 'Ugh', 'bzzz', 'Uh-hu'. 'Mm', etc or
the way animals are called: a cat in English "Here kitty, kitty" in German
"Mies, Mies, Mies!". These elements may again be combined with qualifiers
such as loudness or whispering to communicate different intentions. Momentary
breaks in speech activity or the speech stream, regardless if they are
voluntary or involuntary, should be identified as silent alternants. Some
of the possible functions include speech markers (that is, taking the place
of interpuncutation in verbal discourse), turn-opening, hesitation, word
search, self-correction, etc

Chapter five covers kinesics -- perhaps that area most commonly associated
with non-verbal communication -- defined by Poyatos as follows:
"Conscious and unconscious psychomuscularly-based body movements and
intervening or resulting still positions, either learned or somatogenic, of
visual, visual-acoustic and tactile and kinesthetic perception, which,
whether isolated or combined with the linguistic and paralinguistic
structures and with other somatic and objectual behavioral systems, possess
intended or unintended communicative value" (Volume 2 p. 186)

These activities are to be perceived visually, audibly (such as snapping the
fingers), tactually or kinesthetically -- that is experienced through a
transmittor, i.e. the vibrating of a table or sofa.

As first step in kinesic research gestures, manners and postures should be
differentiated. Gestures are not only conscious movements of, i.e. the head,
the face, the extremities but also unconscious and even uncontrollable
movements. Manners, according to Poyatos, are mainly learned and socially
ritualized. The author including how cloths are worn; how one walks, perform
a greeting, or how one eats; and how one laughs, coughs etc. as a questions
of manners. Postures are static and ritualized being capable of
communicating gender, social status, cultural background, mood, etc.
Expanding kinesics beyond a restrictive scope, eye posture, eye contact, gaze
aversion, and touching (haptics). Closing this chapter Poyatos offers a
methodology for the analysis of cultural and subcultural kinesic inventories.

After having analyzed the nonverbal elements of speech in their audible and
visual dimensions, an area outside the triple structure of
language-paralanguage-kinesics is introduced in Chapter 6 called phonok
inesics. When we move we produce audible kinesics with our body
movements -- we have contact with ourselves, other people animals or objects.
For example, we can click our teeth, our fingernails or the heels of our
shoes on the floor; we can knock at a door or zigzag when we walk. Audible
body extensions -- the sound of object-mediated activities -- such as banging,
patting, rattling, take on meaning in communication, as do the sounds of the
environment. It is important to take the cultural perspective when analyzing
these elements of communication. Certain actions, like clicking your fingers
for a waiter, can evoke different reactions in different cultural settings.
Poyatos stresses that "The human body is a communicator far beyond our
knowledge of language and even of paralanguage, kinesics, proxemics and the
other communication modalities ..." (p. 278).

Chapter 7 contrasts silence and stillness with sound and movement in the
following realms: human, animal, the general cultural environment and the
natural environment. The alternation of silence and sound can vary from
culture to culture. Silence can be interpreted as the pauses between sounds
which can evoke meaning. Poyatos develops a extensive taxonomy of silence
and stillness in their various functions from the positive ones --
environmental natural silence, silence of compassionate love, for example to
the negative functions such as the expression of negative attitudes or
oppressive silence.

The last chapter brings the approach presented in the first two volumes
together to suggest a detailed model for the study of personal and
environmental interaction. Poyatos identifies the possible personal and
extrapersonal components of face-to-face interaction and our interaction with
the environment. Importance is placed not only on the interpersonal
encounter but also on the "setting", being divided into internal and
external, personal objectual and environmental components. The author
suggests that the analysis of our everyday interactions that might appear to
be uncomplicated can often be the tip of the iceberg. The hidden depths of
nonverbal communication are yet to be extensively analyzed.

Volume III: Narrative Literature, Theater, Cinema, Translation
The final volume of Poyatos' trilogy concentrates on the description and
analysis of nonverbal communication in narrative literature and its
presentation in the theater or cinema based on the approach developed in the
first two volumes. In the first four chapters the model is explicitly
discussed from the perspective of the reader when applied to the novel and
from the spectator when applied to theater or cinema. The problems that can
occur when the cultural and personal interpretation system of the original
author must be interpreted by someone from a different cultural background
are discussed. The author divides between the verbal and non-verbal elements
of a text as found in a novel -- the common factor being that all are
described by the writer of the text. When such a text is transformed to the
theater or cinema certain parts of the complex perception of sensible signs
are absent. The novel can describe internal body sounds, olfactory
perception, tactile perception, i.e. which are absent for the spectator in a
theater or cinema adaptation.

The interpersonal relationships between the writer and the reader, the
playwright and the spectator, the actor (an extended case of reader) and the
text, are interwoven in the interpretation of the non-verbal communication.
The kinesics of the text are fully dependent upon description. This is also
a question of the cultural background -- if the kinesics are explicitly
described intercultural difficulties could arise when "translated" into
another language/culture. These elements and other "stage directions" are the
key factors of the naturalness or lack of it that is sensed in a theater

The 5th chapter of the 3rd volume analyzes "Punctuation as nonverbal
communication". Poyatos begins with a chronological description of the
arbitrary development of punctuation in general. With the common existing
symbols of punctuation so-called "momentary features" and "overriding
features" can be represented. For example a primary qualities such as
loudness can be indicated by capital letter, exclamation by an exclamation
point and interrogation by question marks. If a segment of a text is meant to
be loud, it could be put in italics or exclamation marks could follow it.
Silence, omission of certain words or phrases, pondering, etc. are generally
marked by points and/or lines. The author comes to the conclusion that the
arbitrary punctuation system available limits the possibilities of
representation in such a way that its application evokes ambiguity.
Chapter 6 discusses the "functional richness" of nonverbal communication in
narrative literature and then in the theater. The more realistic a situation
is to be depicted, the more important the use of nonverbal communication
becomes. These descriptions help to paint the picture of a personal
environment and the psychological realm of the character involved. And
exactly this makes the translation of literature also a translation of
cultural aspects.

The last chapter of Poyatos trilogy is devoted to the further development of
"Literary anthropology" an interdisciplinary perspective on people, signs and
literature. The analysis of nonverbal categories and culturemes from
synchronic and diachronic perspective allows the understanding of people as
cultural and social beings in their environments. The author emphasizes that
all the models developed in the three volumes can be applied in literary
anthropology. This approach allows not only the comparison of the cultural
entity within itself or with another cultural group. Poyatos has developed a
model that he hopes will "diminish the risk of false interpretation and of
half-way communication and decoding".

In its extensiveness and thoroughness Poyatos' study in nonverbal
communication is sweeping. His three volume opus magnum records the complete
range of topics considered in this field, elaborating on the interwoven
cultural disciplines and their contributions to it. Within his tripartite
framework of communication (language-paralanguage-kinesics) the emphasis is,
due to the subject, placed first on paralinguistic then on kinesical
phenomena. Both are reflected considering the respective cultural background
of their occurrences. Expedient are the precise -- although sometimes broad --
definitions given as bases of following detailed classifications. Even though
some might frighten at first sight, they prove to be useful and an asset for
mastering the abundance of material, offered especially in the paralanguage
section. The latter part contains a complete taxonomy, the components of
which serve as a valuable reference for anyone doing research in most areas
of nonverbal communication. Suggestions for further analysis at the
conclusion of each chapter highlight topics, the author feels need further
treatment. Each volume exhibits an extensive bibliography of publications
related to the topic -- a treasure trove for anyone working in the field --
and a second of the narrative works cited.

The multitude of given examples for the various forms of non-verbal
communication (Vol. 1: 956 literary quotations, Vol. 2: 1608, Vol. 3: 1200
according to the publisher) are taken from narrative texts and not from
observed linguistic data. Whether these represent " that
communicate nonverbally in real life and in its interactions,..." as stated
in the first chapter of the third volume (p. 1), must be validated through
empirical data in the future. The connotation of any nonverbal communication
constituent could also be differentiated according to the theory of
markedness, without which they remain mere neutral elements. Allowing for
marked/unmarked meanings would facilitate analytic interpretation in
different cultural co- and context.

Noticeable is that other authors limit the scope of kinesics to gestures,
postures, placing haptics, oculistics, proxemics, chronomics at the same
hierarchical level whereas Poyatos' defines kinesics as encompassing all
movements of the body. Although the former components are mentioned, a
detailed categorization is left for further research.

But these remarks should not dim the immense importance this exhaustive
categorization of the various facets of nonverbal communication nor the
fundamental quality of Poyatos contribution to the study of nonverbal

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Sherida Altehenger-Smith, coming from a background in sociology (Dipl.-Soz.) and linguistics (PhD), lectures at the University of Karlsruhe and trains in intercultural communication, presentations, and ESP (Business and Technical English). She has publ1shed in the areas of language planning and intercultural communication.