April 27, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 16

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    McNeill wins Laing Award

    David McNeill, whose work gives scholars a whole new look at gestures, received a hand himself when he was presented with the Gordon J. Laing Award from the Press last week. McNeill is Professor and Chairman of Psychology and Professor in Linguistics.

    The applause came for the book Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought, published by the Press in 1992.

    "Hand and Mind makes a new and exciting contribution to our understanding of mental processes and language," said President Sonnenschein. "It represents the sort of careful, thoughtful and thorough scholarship that has long been a hallmark of the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Press."

    The Laing Award is presented annually to the University faculty author, editor or translator of the book published during the previous three years that adds the greatest distinction to the list of the Press. The Board of University Publications makes the selection.

    McNeill received the award at a Quadrangle Club reception on April 20. The award was presented by President Sonnenschein and Morris Philipson, Director of the Press.

    In making the presentation, Sonnenschein cited the book's contribution to our understanding of the connection between speech and gestures. "As David has shown, speech and gestures are both integral parts of language -- complementary realizations of the same thoughts. Furthermore, because gestures reflect the earliest stages in the planning of an utterance, both gestures and words share a common genesis.

    "David's findings have implications for research on the brain, on how children develop language and communication skills, and on how we learn different languages," Sonnenschein said.

    McNeill's work challenges conventional thinking on gestures by showing that movements and space have specific linguistic functions. Gestures, unlike spoken language, are instantaneous, nonlinear, holistic and imagistic, and reveal "a new dimension of the mind," McNeill writes in Hand and Mind. Gestures become nonverbal highlighters of the structure of the discourse and also reveal ideas that people do not verbalize.

    To study people's use of gestures, McNeill showed research subjects a cartoon about Sylvester the Cat's endless pursuit of the ever-elusive Tweety Bird. McNeill found that in retelling the story people revealed their changing perspectives through the ways they used their hands to describe the action in the cartoon.

    McNeill received his A.B. in 1953 and his Ph.D. in 1962 from Berkeley. He was at the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies and the University of Michigan before joining the Chicago faculty in 1969. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Wassenaar. In 1991, he received the Burlington Northern Foundation Faculty Achievement Award as an outstanding teacher of graduate students.

    In addition to Hand and Mind, his books include Psycholinguistics: A New Approach (1987), The Conceptual Basis of Language (1979) and The Acquisition of Language (1970).

    -- William Harms