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The Knowledge

Italian Hand Gestures

How to speak the language… without saying a word

It’s said that approximately 93 per cent of all communication is nonverbal. In Italy, that’s a low estimate. That’s because the Italian language is made up of far more than just words. It’s enriched with a series of facial expressions and hand gestures, many of which are just as expressive, if not more so, than the words themselves.

And there are hundreds. It seems as if every aspect of the vast theatre of human emotion – from hunger to satisfaction, from anger to exasperation – comes with its very own gesture. There are gestures used to gossip, to insult and to reject; there are gestures used to praise, to thank and to plead; there’s even one specifically used to order a Punt e Mes (not an illicit act but a type of vermouth). Suffice it to say that you’ll never speak like a true Italian until you learn to gesture like one.

This story owes a creative debt to the Supplemento al dizionario italiano, a beginners’ guide to the fine art of the Italian hand gesture that was created by the Milanese graphic designer Mr Bruno Munari in 1958. Just as the majority of these gestures are still in use today, the book is still in print 57 years after it was first published. Our guide, above, is entitled Alla Mano, which translates literally as “[a tribute] to the hand” but can also mean “easygoing”. So have fun learning how to make yourself heard even when you're at a loss for words.