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Yesterday, before Jacqueline Vaissière's invited talk at Interspeech 2018, the session chair showed this video about the meaning of Indian head nods:

There are more complicated Indian head-gesture lexicons Out There, like this one:

Or this:

India is geographically, linguistically, and culturally diverse enough that it would be surprising if the same gestures meant the same things throughout the subcontinent.

And even more than in the study of speech, reliable gesture studies need to look at actual usage, not just intuitions about acted examples. My worries about that first "Indian head nod explained" video are enhanced by the fact that it starts by presupposing a falsehood, namely that up-and-down head nods are a universal sign for "yes", while side-to-side head rotations are a universal sign for "no".

As Roman Jakobson notes in "Motor signs for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’", (Language in Society 1972), this is not true — there are parts of the world, including parts of Europe, where the meanings are reversed:

Russian soldiers who had been in Bulgaria in 1877-8 during the war with Turkey could not forget the striking diametrical opposition between their own head motions for indicating 'yes' and 'no' and those of the Bulgarians. The reverse assignment of signs to meanings threw the parties to a conversation off the track, and occasionally led to annoying misunderstandings. 

But of course he has a theory:

Such juxtaposition of two opposite systems of motions signifying 'yes' and 'no' easily leads to a new false generalization, namely the conviction that the distribution of the two semantically-opposed head motions is a purely arbitrary convention. A careful analysis, however, reveals a latent imagery — 'iconicity', to use Charles Peirce's semiotic terminology — underlying these symbols, seemingly entirely devoid of any connection or similarity between their outward form and their meaning. 'Our' binary system of signs for affirmation and negation belongs to the code of head motions used by the vast majority of European peoples, including, among others, the Germanic peoples, the East and West Slavs (in particular, the Russians, Poles, and Czechs), the French and most of the Romance peoples, etc. Moreover, similar signs in the same function are in general widespread, though by no means universal, among various peoples of all parts of the world. A nod of the head serves here as an expression of agreement, in other words, as a synonym for the word 'yes'.

Like certain forms of affirmative hand motions, this head motion has a close analog in the particular welcoming ritual which is used in the same ethnic environment. The movement of the head forward and down is an obvious visual representation of bowing before the demand, wish, suggestion or opinion of the other participant in the conversation, and it symbolizes obedient readiness for an affirmative answer to a positively-worded question. The direct opposite of bending the head forward as a sign of obedience ought to be throwing the head back as a sign of disagreement, dissent, refusal — in short, as a sign of a negative attitude. However, such a straightforward opposition of two motions of the head is obstructed by the need for insistent emphatic repetition of both the affirmative and the negative head motions; cf. the vocal repetitions 'yes, yes, yes!' and 'no, no, no!' The corresponding chain of head motions in the first case would be the alternation 'forward-backward-forward-backward-forward-backward' etc., and in the second case the reverse set 'backward-forward-backward-forward-backward-forward' etc., i.e. two similar series; the entire difference between them comes down to the initial movement forward or backward and easily slips by the addressee, remaining beyond the threshold of his perception.

The semantically opposite signs of affirmation and negation required perceptibly-contrasting forms of head motions. The forward-bending movement used in an affirmative nod found its clear-cut opposite in the sideward-turning movement which is characteristic of the head motion synonymous with the word 'no'. This latter sign, the outward form of which was undoubtedly constructed by contrast to the affirmative head motion, is in turn not devoid of iconicity. Turning the face to the side, away from the addressee (first, apparently, usually to the left},B symbolizes, as it were, alienation, refusal, the termination of direct face-to-face contact.

If in the system of head motions for 'yes' and 'no' under discussion the sign for affirmation appears to be the point of departure, then in the Bulgarian code, which also has parallels among a few ethnic groups in the Balkan Peninsula and the Near East, it is rather the sign for negation which serves as the point of departure for the system. The Bulgarian head motion for 'no', appearing at first glance visually identical to the Russian head motion for 'yes', under close observation displays a significant point of difference. The Russian single affirmative nod is delimited by a bending motion of the head forward and its return to the usual vertical position. In the Bulgarian system, a single negative sign consists of throwing the head back and the consequent return to the vertical position. However, emphatic intensification makes the return to the normal position into a slight bending of the head backward in our 'yes' or forward in the Bulgarian 'no'. Frequently, because of emphasis, the same head motion undergoes immediate repetition — once or many times — and such repetition, as had already been noted above, more or less obscures the difference between our sign for affirmation and the Bulgarian sign for negation.

In the pure form of the Bulgarian negation, the head — thrown back, away from the addressee — bespeaks departure, disagreement, discord, a rejected suggestion, refusal of a positive answer to a given question, while the Bulgarian sign for affirmation -turning the head from side to side — represents an obviously secondary form, a derivative from its negative antonym. In keeping with Saussure's formula (1916: I, ch. 1, § 2), observations of the structure of the Bulgarian head motion for 'yes' and of its basic core of inalienable properties should reveal even in this visual sign a certain degree of iconicity. With the initial turn of the head — usually to the right — and with each further turn, the addressor of this affirmative cue offers his ear to the addressee, displaying in this way heightened attention well-disposed to his words. 

Jakobson's interpretation of the rocking side-to-side motion also disagrees with the Indian video, suggesting that it signifies ambiguous amazement rather than agreement:

Amazement, as if removing the capability of an unambiguous reply ('neither yes nor no'), is expressed by rocking the head from side to side, usually from left to right. An inclined movement of the head relates this sign to the head motion for 'yes', and the direction from side to side relates it to the motion for 'no'.

This agrees with the way that I would interpret it. But it's clear that there are  intercultural differences — and it's also clear that it's way past time for empirical investigation of how head gestures are actually used by different kinds of people in different settings and different types of interaction.



  1. Thorin said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 2:37 am

    Albania is another place where a nod can be taken as a negative, and a shake of the head as an affirmative.

    [(myl) Yes, as Jakobson says "the Bulgarian code […] also has parallels among a few ethnic groups in the Balkan Peninsula and the Near East".]

  2. David Marjanović said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 6:10 am

    The backwards nod for "no" is reportedly also found in southern Italy, and said to be an ancient Greek thing. That could hardly apply to India, though.

    [(myl) Yes — see Brian Joseph, "On the Development of Modern Greek ovci ‘no!’", 2000:

    A final piece of suggestive corroborative evidence comes from the common gesture for ‘no’ found among Greek and Turkish speakers, namely the upward head-nod (found as well in Arabic speech communities and in parts of Africa). It is important here to note that Morris et al. 1979 suggests that it continues an Ancient Greek gesture for ‘no’ based on its distribution of in modern day Europe: Greece, Turkey, and old Magna Graecia only, with a boundary in Italy between the Greek-type gesture and western European one coinciding with the ancient boundary between Greek Campania and Southern Etruscan territory). It would thus appear that the gesture spread from
    Greek into Turkish (contrary to what Landsman, p. 25n.14, suggests), and so it would be further evidence of the transferability in contact situations of forms signifying ‘no’. Moreover, even if the Turkish gesture is borrowed from Greek, its adoption by Turks would have meant that there would have been upward-head-nodding negation-expressing Turks saying yo(k) as a model for the reshaping of the word for ‘no’ by upward-head-nodding negation-expressing Greeks in the medieval period.


  3. KeithB said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 8:20 am

    There is also the scene in "The God's must be crazy" when the Rhino stomps out the fire and main character looks to the natives to confirm this behavior and they shake their heads. And then of course, he has to explain that shaking of the head means "yes".

  4. MonkeyBoy said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    The negative head shake may have a biological grounding in "pee shivers" saying essentially "piss off".

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

    David M ("The backwards nod for "no" is reportedly also found in southern Italy, and said to be an ancient Greek thing".) This could cause serious confusion if a backwards-nod-for-"no" user communicates with a Vietnamese then, since my wife (probably, but not unequivocally, like her fellow Vietnamese) uses her chin to point to things, which could easily be mis-interpreted as a backwards nod …

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