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GRAMBY Report Summary

Project ID: 340140
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Israel

Periodic Report Summary 2 - GRAMBY (The Grammar of the Body: Revealing the Foundations of Compositionality in Human Language)

Language, the most impressive of all human capacities, has fascinated thinkers, at least ever since they were able to record it in writing. But writing language down has also limited its study to that which can be written: words and their arrangement. In the Grammar of the Body (GRAMBY) project, we probe the fundamental properties of human language in a more dynamic, visible communicative system -- the actions of the body. We take sign languages of deaf people as a point of departure, because these languages represent the most highly sophisticated and constrained use of the body for communication that humans have produced. The flagship property of language that guides us is combinatoriality: the combination and recombination of meaningful units to form more complex expressions.

With the body as our guide, we seek to identify the fundamental components of human language, how they evolve, and how they combine to create the complex communication system that we use effortlessly every day. The GRAMBY project approaches these issues from five directions: (1) Sign Language; (2) Physical Theatre; (3) Emotion Expression; (4) Brain Organization; (5) Evolution (chimpanzees). Results show that humans organize communicative signals of both language and emotion combinatorially, and that there is a link between combinatorial structure in the mind and the actions of the body.

Sign Languages offer two advantages. First, specific linguistic elements (words, events, reference to participants, contrast, intonation, etc.) can be identified in the actions of visible articulators of the hands, body, and face. Second, unlike spoken languages which are thousands of years old, sign languages are young, and can sometimes be documented as they emerge. By tracking the actions of each bodily articulator across generations in three young sign languages in Israel, we have found that (a) languages begin with very simple machinery; (b) emergence of complexity is revealed through actions and interactions of articulators that signal increasingly specific and sophisticated functions; and (c) they gain formal structure through faster, more streamlined, and more coordinated actions of these diverse articulations.

In the Sign Language Theatre project, deaf actors extend linguistic forms beyond their normal boundaries, and interweave them with devices of physical theater - pushing the communicative use of the body to its most exotic and entertaining extreme. Each handshape, location, or movement that comprises a sign in the lexicon can be modified in theatrical expression to give heightened meaning. Gestural capacities that we can all comprehend are ingeniously intertwined with enhanced signing, challenging the division between linguistic and mimetic depiction. The body can be segmented so that the face represents the narrator, the hands one participant in an event, and the body another. As one deaf audience member wrote of this unique cultural phenomenon, "The show is exhilarating, it drives you to break the boundaries of the mind and body."

We dig deeper by asking whether emotion, a more basic human communicative system, is also combinatorial, consisting of complex combinations of meaningful components. We coded the intense emotional displays of athletes who had just won or lost a competition, and asked participants to grade the pictures along a sliding scale, for pairs of opposing emotions and dimensions, such as happy/sad; proud/ashamed; dominant/submissive. We found that individual components of facialexpression and body posture correlate with particular interpretations. Emotions that involve internal conflict such as anger and frustration add an asymmetrical body posture to the displays, distinguishing them from other negative states like sad and submissive. While the upper face is similar for intense happiness, pride, and dominance, these are distinguished from one another by actions of the lower face. In sum, we find, in this corporeal communication system that is more primal than language, the kernels of a shared property: combinatoriality.

If language and emotion are both combinatorially structured, is there any overlap in brain regions activated for processing the two? This is a question we intend to address in fMRI studies as the project proceeds.

In the wild and in zoos, we are studying chimpanzees to learn whether our primate relatives recombine different gestures and facial expressions to convey complex meanings. Coding signals and contexts, and tracking the eye movement patterns of the chimps, we investigate how far back combinatorial communication reaches in evolution.

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