by Pamela Rogow
My jaw dropped, as the gentleman with the Cambridge accent began reading his poem. It was Open Mic Night last summer at the Moving Arts studio in Mt Airy. (Full disclosure: the studio is in my house.)
I laughed out loud a bit much, so I put my hand over my mouth. Listening to so finely crafted a tale and to its droll recounting was surprisingly riveting. This was Episode 8 from “Episodes in the Life of Professor Augustus Pomegranate.”
At the poem’s conclusion, the M.C., Heather Drew, revealed her own surprise: “Are you by any chance a professor?” she asked of the poet. “Are you the Adam Kendon who wrote the book on Aboriginal sign language?”
“My professor thinks so highly of your work! It’s so important.” (Heather had studied in the communications department at Eastern University.)
The poem reminded me a bit of P.G. Wodehouse, a personal favorite. I didn’t know then that this was the first public reading of any of the “Pomegranate Episodes.” Eleven more episodes are complete, with a final one in the works; Germantown poet Adam Kendon will be pleased to find an illustrator for the whole of it.
Several months later, he and I met again at the Moving Arts studio. Adam Kendon is a scholar of gesture — the visible body action that is intimately involved in the activity of speaking. He earned a doctorate in social psychology from Oxford and is one of the “two fathers” of the field, along with David McNeill of the University of Chicago. Together, they have established and defined this field of study.
Now 79, he married Margaret Rhoads of Germantown, whom he met while a graduate student at Cornell, in 1961. During the course of a career which took them for extended periods of time to Australia, England and Italy, and in the U.S. to Pitt, Connecticut College, Indiana University and U of P (the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science), he has done field work on gesture and conversation among Americans, Australian Aborigines, Neapolitans and the English. In 1988, Adam and Margaret settled into an 1860s stone house on Walnut Lane that had long belonged to her family.
Margaret’s father, Jonathan, may be known to some readers. A surgeon, he was president of the American Philosophical Society and was active in the Quaker community. Margaret was active in the Germantown Friends Meeting.
In the preface to his 1999 translation from Italian of what is thought to be the first ethnographic study of gesture, he wrote, “Above all…I wish to thank Margaret Kendon, who has for so long tolerated and supported a husband who persists with projects that show little respect for practical reality and that have required numerous and, at times, lengthy absences. What I would have done without her, I do not know.”
Adam and Margaret raised three children. Sons Benjamin and Angus now live in Canberra, Australia, and daughter Gudrun near Washington DC. There are six grandchildren. Margaret died last year.
In helping to shape this field, Adam Kendon has incorporated history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics and semiotics. He describes himself as a human ethologist, having started out studying biological sciences at Cambridge University. He’s worked out ways to categorize, track and document what gesture is and what it is not.
Consider the scope of this academic challenge: To study sign language used by the women of the Warlpiri in Australia when you are a male. Or to translate from Italian into English a dense 1832 book about gestures used by Neapolitans, who perhaps still display their Greek heritage, and analyze how their gestures can explain those depicted in the mosaics, wall paintings and vases found in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Adam Kendon’s 2004 book, “Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance,” published by Cambridge University Press, has chapters on “gesture units, phrases and speech,” gesture without speech; gesture, culture and communication economy, and so forth.
Regarding what he considers his most important work, “Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communicative Perspectives,” Adam explained, “When women in the aboriginal communities become widows, they may stop speaking, remaining silent for a year or two or more. Some women, unless they release themselves from the vow of silence so that they can seek another husband, remain silent for the rest of their lives. As a result, they use an elaborate sign language which is important if you are not allowed to speak, but also useful by those who do speak, for example, when you don’t want men to know what you are talking about!”
The book is still the only comprehensive analysis of Australian Aboriginal sign languages, especially the sign languages used by women in central Australia. Fewer than 1000 copies of this book were published in 1988.
Kendon also created a five-hour video dictionary of Warlpiri sign language, covering more than 1500 signs. Consider that some children in Australia are known to be actively inventing their own new language. And that of the 250 Aboriginal languages which existed before colonization, 145 were still spoken in 2005, although110 of them are critically endangered.
Adam continues to systematically analyze how we move our bodies while we speak, as we invariably do. Why do we move our hands when we speak? How do deaf children who are not exposed to sign language still develop sign-type gestures? How did the British become known for “stiff upper lip” and the Neopolitans with their Greek heritage, for broad and varied gesticulations? How did the Yiddish-speaking immigrants in New York use their hands?