Why do Italian speakers have these hand gestures?

Looking back at 2021, some events have certainly thrust some parts about language into the spotlight. Perhaps the most prominent one was the Euro 2020 cup, especially in the Italian team:

Omar @topimpacat he's speaking italian so damn hard - )
Perhaps one of the most significant memes of the Euro cup this year

This is not one isolated incident; on Twitter, there are clips showing the Italian footballers conversing in the locker room, most of them with these hand gestures:

Memes about speaking Italian have been aplenty, reflecting in cartoons like Family Guy, almost all of them associating Italian with one certain hand gesture: that of a hand with pinched fingers or also known as the purse hand. So significant is this hand gesture that it has become an emoji in 2020. So what does this mean exactly, and why is this so strongly associated with the Italian language? Do other languages not have hand gestures too?

Pinched Fingers on Apple iOS 14.6
The pinched fingers hand gesture so stereotypically associated with Italian

Firstly, for a bit of introduction, this hand gesture is known as the che vuoi? gesture, translated as the “what do you want” gesture. Alternate descriptions also include the ma che vuoi?ma che dici?/ma che stai dicendo? (“what are you talking about?”), or simply che? (“what?”), which combined with certain facial expressions, could pretty much demonstrate negative connotations.

Modifiers to this gesture pretty much boils down to movement: the hand can be moved up and down from the wrist or forearm, or can be shaken up and down. The latter often demonstrates the speaker’s impatience, while the frequency and speed of these motions can demonstrate how frustrated the speaker is.

It is used to express disbelief, or to ridicule the other person’s opinions or whatever they are saying. When combined with a confused look, it can convey the meaning of Ma che fai? / Ma dove vai? (But what are you doing? / But where are you going?), used when someone says something a bit ridiculous. When combined with a disagreeing look, this can mean Ma chi sei? / Ma che vuoi / Ma perché? (But who are you? / But what do you want? / But why?!)

This is not the only hand gesture in the Italian language; there are some 250 specific ones that have been identified, each with their own connotation, meaning, and situation to use. Some of them are shown here, sourced from The Student Guide to Perugia:

Italian Gestures | The student guide to Perugia

But why does Italian have such a wealth of hand gestures? The origins of each hand gesture as a means of communication are still being debated by linguists, but one theory posits that they rose through necessity to maintain communication between the diverse regional dialects of Italian, by using a universal, non-verbal method.

The historical basis of these gestures involves immigration, occupation, and interactions between Italian and other language and people groups like the Ostrogoths and Vandals. Without a common language, hand gestures developed as rudimentary sign language to communicate. This formed the foundation for the development of hand gestures.

A theory behind the persistence and proliferation of Italian hand gestures suggested that the Renaissance brought along a stronger desire to express themselves and deliver their thoughts from which they could derive satisfaction. With the emergence of larger population centres in Italy, people were further compelled to “take up greater space through their movements and expression in order to be understood”, adding physical elements to communication. Over time, these hand gestures contribute some expression to verbal communication, showing emotions, and also serve as a substitute for verbal communication. This adds further discourse, expressivity, and other elements not quite shown in just plain speech alone.

Italian is not the only language where hand gestures can be found; pretty much any language you might have heard of has its own set of hand gestures, albeit with different meanings and connotations. Take Turkish, for example. The language has a whole set of hand gestures that is worth exploring in a separate post, but the “purse hand” gesture conveys the message that “something is good” or “something tastes good”. The “fig hand” gesture however, is recognised as highly offensive, and is so in many Mediterranean cultures and languages.

Interestingly, the “purse hand” gesture conveys the message of “human testicles” in Chichewa, a language spoken in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. So for my Chichewa-speaking readers out there, this might have seemed not quite family-friendly.

This has been an interesting dive into the meanings of hand gestures in Italian, inspired from several memes found on the Internet. I might make this into a meme review sort of thing, but this has got to do it for now. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and learned a bit more about Italian.

Further reading

The article on hand gestures in Turkish:

Denizci, C. (2015) A study on how Turkish emblematic hand gestures convey meaning. İstanbul Üniversitesi İletişim Fakültesi Dergisi 49, 51-73. Available from: doi:10.17064/iüifhd.57009.

You could also find the paper here: https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/213185.

The busuu blog post on Italian hand gestures:


And also more Italian hand gestures on ESLstories:


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