Mark Liberman at Language Log has been investigating the “chin flick” gesture that Antonin Scalia recently used (and explained as meaning “I could not care less”). His latest post quotes an e-mail from Adam Kendon, “one of the world’s foremost authorities on the topic of gesture”; Kendon, in turn, quotes “Andrea de Jorio, whose La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano from 1832 is rather comprehensive regarding Neapolitan gesture” (I saw a reprint of this book, which is fascinating and enlightening—there should be such books for all cultures) as saying the gesture is a simple negative. This is backed up by “two local Procidanians” (Kendon is on Procida at the moment), but “if you ask someone from the more northerly parts of Italy about this gesture they are likely to say that it means ‘I don’t care’ or ‘It does not bother me’—and they do tend to suggest that it is a rather rude gesture.” In southern Italy and Sicily, the gesture frequently accompanies a backward toss of the head, and Kendon adds the following parenthetical remark:

As to the gesture of negation in which you push the head back, this is still used even today in Southern Italy and Sicily, and is almost certainly very old. It is distributed in those parts of the Mediterranean that were, in antiquity, occupied by Greeks [see Gerhard Rohlfs “Influence des élements autochones sur les langues romanes (Problèmes de gógraphie linguistique). Actes du Colloque International de Civilisations, Littératures et Langues Romanes. Bucherest: Comission nationale roumaine pour l’Unesco, Actes du Colloque international de civilisations. 1959/1960. 240-247 and see also Peter Collett and Alberta Contarello “Gesti di assenso e di dissenso” in Pio Enrico Ricci Bitti, ed. Comunicazione e gestualità. Milan: Franco Agneli, 1987, pp. 69-85]

I myself saw the head-toss used routinely not only in Greece but in Turkey (which of course was Greek before the Battle of Manzikert in 1071) and I believe also in Syria. It’s amazing how persistent such nonverbal signifiers can be.


  1. Perhaps just as relevantly, Greece was politically Ottoman until 1832. Gestures, like food, can be spread by empires whether Greek or Turk.
    Ivan Derzhanski told me once that he routinely switches from Balkan gestures when speaking Bulgarian to Western gestures when speaking Russian, English, etc.

  2. The infamous head-toss, which is so easy to mistake for a nod.
    There’s actually a scene about this, as you may already know, in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the upshot of which is that the Greeks and the Persians did not use the same gesture to mean “yes.” However, what gesture was used by either nation is not specifically noted.

  3. Gestures, like food, can be spread by empires whether Greek or Turk.
    Very true, but southern Italy was never Ottoman, so I don’t think the influence was from there.

  4. dungbeetle says:

    With a gesture or strong body language, you could say your say and it not be used for an inditement as it be not written, now that we have surveilance cameras we may have to watch out for a Bronx cheer as it may land us in the dock. The Courts do not accept a nod or shake as a legal answer yet. AH Well! the audience knows.

  5. Deacon in The Symbolic Species suggests that gestures have the pointing properties akin to those of words and must share the space with words in human language engine. Elaborating on his assertion, I would expect gestures to live the same long life as words do, and to get passed down within a population and undergo “borrowing” between them. He maintains that absense of gestures as universal as consonants are suggests that the gestures never played significant role in language, but he looks at a time scale of biological evolution, and into the past whence no recognizable word has come; I fancy that on a modest time scale of hundreds or thousand years, gestures emerge and get borrowed and transform and combine and expire and expose their own variety of an empyrical Grimm’s law.
    I have never happened to come accross a serious study of gestures, though, and I thank you for pointing to one!

  6. Giovanni says:

    A pal did a study on the gesture for “no” about ten years ago and here is a definite line from just north of Naples southwards where quite a number of Greek gestures can be found. The Greek “no” is a upward head toss. More subtly it a movement of the chin forward, or raised eyebrows. This is used from southern Italy, Sicily, Greece, mos tof the Balkans and in Turkey. Of course a large number of people in southern Italy were speaking a Greek dialect until just a few hundred years ago (although it is still found).
    I think Kendon is showing a bit of ingroance when he says this:
    This is the best I can do. As to Scalia, he is, after all, Italian-American — I do not know his Italian background, but he is not, as far as I know, of Neapolitan origin. [Wikipedia says that says “Antonin Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His mother, Catherine, was born in the United States; his father, S. Eugene, a professor of romance languages, emigrated from Sicily at age 15.” – myl] His use of what appears to be a version of the ‘chin flick’ (as described above) seems a little different from the Neapolitan one — but then, as I say, in regard to language, as well as gesture, you cannot generalize about “Italians” — you have to be local.
    Gestures of course in Naples very much mirror Sicily and Calabria which were all very Greek for a millenia or more.
    I also take issue with De Jorio assertion. The no gesture, whether a northern European turned head, or a southern upturned head probably orginate right at the breast.
    Lastly the fanned and forward moving hand under the chin is a different gesture. In Italy, north and south this is a gesture of contempt.

  7. And don’t forget the verbal noise, which kinda sounds like a kangaroo (I am Greek Australian after all), that goes with the flicking of the head.
    Quite often the noise is unaccompanied by any gesticulations whatsoever and means no just the same.

  8. Very true — I should have thought to mention that.
    And Giovanni, I had the same thought about Naples/Sicily.

  9. Antonios, does a kangaroo sound as if it is saying “Tsk”? Because in that case, the Sicilians do it too. In some cases they extend their lips as if to kiss someone from a distance. In some other cases, they don’t even move their heads but just look at you and say “Tsk”, which is very confusing for the unwary stranger.

  10. That “tsk” sounds about right Sara, although the extended lips isn’t a feature of Greek naysaying.
    And in Greece, the unintuitive (for Northern Europeans at least) nature of the head nod meaning “no” compounds the confusion caused by the Greek word for “yes”, which is pronounced “ne”, and sounds like it should mean “no”.

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