Writing’s on the wall for gesturing for a bill
Many hand signals, such as for using a phone or telling the time, make no sense to young people, say experts
Many common hand signals we use such as writing in the air to get the bill or the tap on the wrist to ask the time are at risk of dying out because they make no sense to young people, experts say. Card payments have reduced the need for chequebooks and most young people use their mobile phones rather than a watch to tell the time. Vyv Evans, a linguist, said: “Younger generations will not know what these signals are … as technology changes, they lose their value.”
IT is one of the most widely recognised gestures in the western world − a hand to the ear, little finger and thumb extended, sometimes with the added flourish of a wiggle, to symbolise a phone call.
But as the landline turns into a thing of the past, this commonly recognised hand signal, as well as many others based on older technology, is likely to become obsolete, according to language experts.
Vyv Evans, a professor of linguistics and a communication expert, said such gestures that have a specific meaning – known as emblems – are often culturally or generationally specific.
He said: “Emblems that are specific to particular devices will only be recognised by those who are familiar with such devices. As technology changes, they lose their value.”
Similarly, the circular motion used to indicate the winding up or down of a car window, is on its way out – as could be the sign of holding up the fingers and rubbing them together to indicate cash.
The tap on the wrist to ask the time or indicate someone is late is also likely to be lost in translation with younger generations who rely solely on mobile phones to tell the time. And the ubiquitous writing in the air gesture used by diners to show they are ready for the bill will also become a thing of the past as the use of chequebook and signature for payment is consigned to history.
Dr Evans said: “Younger generations just will not know what these signals are. Red phone boxes are all but disappearing from the streets, landlines that you picked up and held in a particular way are rarely used. People use smartphones now and they are held very differently. Similarly, the traditional way of indicating a film in the game charades, by motioning an old-fashioned reel movie camera, will go the same way.
“As people are no longer exposed to such technology, the emblems associated with them drop out of usage.”
A Tiktok video went viral recently after New Yorker Daniel Alvarado remarked “this is how you know you’re getting old” when he showed how his children each held a flat palm to the side of their face to indicate a mobile phone.
Dr Adam Schembri, a reader in linguistics at the University of Birmingham, agreed that, just like words, emblematic gestures would come and go in time. “My 18-year-old students understand the landline phone gesture, for example, but the landline is still within their lived experience so they can still make that connection.
“It might be that in the future, when people have no lived experience of these things, that such gestures are used less and less as they become less meaningful.”
He explained: “It’s a communication system. Subcultures, like gangs, have their own gestures − they have their own meaning in the same way that words do.”
Something strange is happening to hand gestures. We often think them universally comprehensible, though if you have ever tried to direct a dog by pointing, the limits become clear. But it is still surprising to find, as we report today, that young people – those born this century – don’t understand the international sign for getting the bill in a restaurant, by writing in the air. Nor, apparently, do they know the gesture for giving someone a phone call later. It is no explanation that the horn-like extension of the thumb and little finger no longer represents what a phone looks like, for the older sign of cranking a magneto has survived the extinction of that technology. The language of flowers has withered and drivers’ hand-signals are long gone, but when it comes to the death of daily hand gestures, words fail us.