Keevallik: Vocalizations in dance classes teach body knowledge

Keevallik has published in Linguistics Vanguard on the use of non-lexical vocalizations and their use by instructors for coaching dance.


Language is believed to be a central device for communicating meaning and knowledge between humans. It is superb in its capacity to code abstract ideas and displaced information, which can be conveyed from person to person, sometimes across centuries. When it comes to instructing a bodily skill in co-present situations, language is used along with other multimodal resources. This paper focuses on the role of vocalizations in dance teaching, syllables that express simultaneous body movement rather than abstract lexical content. While being essentially a vocal resource, the meaning of vocalizations arises in the simultaneously moving bodies. By carrying indexical and only partially conventionalized meaning, vocalizations constitute a puzzle for linguistic theory that preferably targets the arbitrary, symbolic and conventionalized aspects of human vocal production. The meanings conveyed from one body to another through a vocalization are experiential rather than intellectual. Vocalizations provide a solution to the problem of transferring body knowledge from one autonomous organism to another, and can even be embedded in syntax. The analysis is based on an occasion of teaching a jazz routine to a larger group of students.

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