The nearest approach to a general rule which it is now proposed to hazard is that where people speaking precisely the same dialect are not numerous, and are thrown into constant contact on equal terms with others of differing dialects and languages, gesture is necessarily resorted to for converse with the latter, and remains for an indefinite time as a habit or accomplishment among themselves, while large bodies enjoying common speech, and either isolated from foreigners, or, when in contact with them, so dominant as to compel the learning and adoption of their own tongue, become impassive in its delivery. The ungesturing English, long insular, and now rulers when spread over continents, may be compared with the profusely gesticulating Italians dwelling in a maze of dialects and subject for centuries either to foreign rule or to the influx of strangers on whom they depended. So common is the use of gestures in Italy, especially among the lower and uneducated classes, that utterance without them seems to be nearly impossible. The driver or boatman will often, on being addressed, involuntarily drop the reins or oars, at the risk of a serious accident, to respond with his arms and fingers in accompaniment of his tongue. Nor is the habit confined to the uneducated. King Ferdinand returning to Naples after the revolt of 1821, and finding that the boisterous multitude would not allow his voice to be heard, resorted successfully to a royal address in signs, giving reproaches, threats, admonitions, pardon, and dismissal, to the entire satisfaction of the assembled lazzaroni. The medium, though probably not the precise manner of its employment, recalls Lucan’s account of the quieting of older tumult—
Composuit vultu, dextraque silentia fecit.
This rivalry of Punch would, in London, have occasioned measureless ridicule and disgust. The difference in what is vaguely styled temperament does not wholly explain the contrast between the two peoples, for the performance was creditable both to the readiness of the King in an emergency and to the aptness of his people, the main distinction being that in Italy there was in 1821, and still is, a recognized and cultivated language of signs long disused in Great Britain. In seeking to account for this it will be remembered that the Italians have a more direct descent from the people who, as has been above shown, in classic times so long and lovingly cultivated gesture as a system. They have also had more generally before their eyes the artistic relics in which gestures have been preserved.
It is a curious fact that some English writers, notably Addison (Spectator, 407), have contended that it does not suit the genius of that nation to use gestures even in public speaking, against which doctrine Austin vigorously remonstrates. He says: “There may possibly be nations whose livelier feelings incline them more to gesticulation than is common among us, as there are also countries in which plants of excellent use to man grow spontaneously; these, by care and culture, are found to thrive also in colder countries.”
It is in general to be remarked that as the number of dialects in any district decreases so will the gestures, though doubtless there is also weight in the fact not merely that a language has been reduced to and modified by writing, but that people who are accustomed generally to read and write, as are the English and Germans, will after a time think and talk as they write, and without the accompaniments still persistent among Hindus, Arabs, and the less literate of European nations.
Sicily Gesture Language
The fact that in the comparatively small island of Sicily gesture language has been maintained until the present time in a perfection not observed elsewhere in Europe must be considered in connection with the above remark on England’s insularity, and it must also be admitted that several languages have prevailed in the latter, still leaving dialects. This apparent similarity of conditions renders the contrast as regards use of gestures more remarkable, yet there are some reasons for their persistence in Sicily which apply with greater force than to Great Britain. The explanation, through mere tradition, is that the common usage of signs dates from the time of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, who prohibited meetings and conversation among his subjects, under the direst penalties, so that they adopted that expedient to hold communication. It would be more useful to consider the peculiar history of the island. The Sicanians being its aborigines it was colonized by Greeks, who, as the Romans asserted, were still more apt at gesture than themselves. This colonization was also by separate bands of adventurers from several different states of Greece, so that they started with dialects and did not unite in a common or national organization, the separate cities and their territories being governed by oligarchies or tyrants frequently at war with each other, until, in the fifth century B.C., the Carthaginians began to contribute a new admixture of language and blood, followed by Roman, Vandal, Gothic, Herulian, Arab, and Norman subjugation. Thus some of the conditions above suggested have existed in this case, but, whatever the explanation, the accounts given by travelers of the extent to which the language of signs has been used even during the present generation are so marvelous as to deserve quotation. The one selected is from the pen of Alexandre Dumas, who, it is to be hoped, did not carry his genius for romance into a professedly sober account of travel:
In the intervals of the acts of the opera I saw lively conversations carried on between the orchestra and the boxes. Arami, in particular, recognized a friend whom he had not seen for three years, and who related to him, by means of his eyes and his hands, what, to judge by the eager gestures of my companion, must have been matters of great interest. The conversation ended, I asked him if I might know without impropriety what was the intelligence which had seemed to interest him so deeply. ‘O, yes,’ he replied, ‘that person is one of my good friends, who has been away from Palermo for three years, and he has been telling me that he was married at Naples; then traveled with his wife in Austria and in France; there his wife gave birth to a daughter, whom he had the misfortune to lose; he arrived by steamboat yesterday, but his wife had suffered so much from sea-sickness that she kept her bed, and he came alone to the play.’ ‘My dear friend,’ said I to Arami, ‘if you would have me believe you, you must grant me a favor.’ ‘What is it?’ said he. ‘It is, that you do not leave me during the evening, so that I may be sure you give no instructions to your friend, and when we join him, that you ask him to repeat aloud what he said to you by signs.’ ‘That I will,’ said Arami. The curtain then rose; the second act of Norma was played; the curtain falling, and the actors being recalled, as usual, we went to the side-room, where we met the traveler. ‘My dear friend,’ said Arami, ‘I did not perfectly comprehend what you wanted to tell me; be so good as to repeat it.’ The traveler repeated the story word for word, and without varying a syllable from the translation, which Arami had made of his signs; it was marvelous indeed.
Six weeks after this, I saw a second example of this faculty of mute communication. This was at Naples. I was walking with a young man of Syracuse. We passed by a sentinel. The soldier and my companion exchanged two or three grimaces, which at another time I should not even have noticed, but the instances I had before seen led me to give attention. ‘Poor fellow,’ sighed my companion. ‘What did he say to you?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I thought that I recognized him as a Sicilian, and I learned from him, as we passed, from what place he came; he said he was from Syracuse, and that he knew me well. Then I asked him how he liked the Neapolitan service; he said he did not like it at all, and if his officers did not treat him better he should certainly finish by deserting. I then signified to him that if he ever should be reduced to that extremity, he might rely upon me, and that I would aid him all in my power. The poor fellow thanked me with all his heart, and I have no doubt that one day or other I shall see him come.’ Three days after, I was at the quarters of my Syracusan friend, when he was told that a man asked to see him who would not give his name; he went out and left me nearly ten minutes. ‘Well,’ said he, on returning, ‘just as I said.’ ‘What?’ said I. ‘That the poor fellow would desert.’
After this there is an excuse for believing the tradition that the revolt called “the Sicilian Vespers,” in 1282, was arranged throughout the island without the use of a syllable, and even the day and hour for the massacre of the obnoxious foreigners fixed upon by signs only. Indeed, the popular story goes so far as to assert that all this was done by facial expression, without even manual signs.