Pointing is a gesture specifying a direction from a person's body, usually indicating a location, person, event, thing or idea. It typically is formed by extending the arm, hand, and index finger, although it may be functionally similar to other hand gestures. Types of pointing may be subdivided according to the intention of the person, as well as by the linguistic function it serves.
Pointing typically develops within the first two years of life in humans, and plays an important role in language development and reading in children. It is central to the use of sign language, with a large number of signs being some variation on pointing. The nature of pointing may differ for children who have autism or who are deaf, and may also vary by gender. It is typically not observed in children who are blind from birth.
Pointing may vary substantially across cultures, with some having many distinct types of pointing, both with regard to the physical gestures employed and their interpretation. Pointing, especially at other people, may be considered inappropriate or rude in certain contexts and in many cultures. It is generally regarded as a species-specific human feature that does not normally occur in other primates in the wild. It has been observed in animals in captivity; however, there is disagreement on the nature of this non-human pointing.
Gestures that do not meet these three or four criteria are usually classified as a "reach" or an “indicative gesture”, although there is no clear consensus on how to differentiate between the two. Additionally, there may be little or no behavioral or functional difference depending on whether a gesture is considered to be pointing, reaching, or otherwise indicative, and reaching may be considered a form of whole-hand pointing. In one review, 11 separate definitions were identified for the related motions of reach, reaching-out, reaching, indicating, and indicates.
Declarative pointing may further be divided into declarative expressive pointing, to express feelings about a thing, and declarative interrogative pointing, to seek information about a thing. However, according to Kovacs and colleagues interrogative pointing is clearly different from declarative pointing, since its function is to gain new information about a referent to learn from a knowledgeable addressee. Therefore, unlike declarative pointing, interrogative pointing implies an asymmetric epistemic relation between communicative partners.
Additionally, pointing in children who are deaf may be divided between diectic or "natural" pointing, which is shared with hearing children, and symbolic pointing used specifically in sign language, learned by observing and imitating others who sign.
Pointing generally emerges within the first two years of life, weeks prior to a baby's first Speech, and plays a central role in language acquisition. The onset of pointing behavior is typically between seven and 15 months-of-age, with an average of between 11 months and one year. By eight months, parents reported that 33% of babies exhibited pointing behaviors, with pointing to nearby objects usually occurring by 11 months, and pointing to more distant object by 13 months. By one year of age, more than half of children will exhibit pointing behavior.
As early as 10 months-of-age, children have been shown to spend more time being attentive to novel objects when they are pointed to by others, when compared to objects that are merely presented to them. This time is increased if the object is also labelled verbally. Pointing by children is associated with a high rate of verbal response from adults, specifically labeling the object pointed to. This interaction allows the child to check for words labeling object they do not yet know, and, when combined with declarative verbal statements on the part of the child, may allow them verify the accuracy of words they have already learned.
Infants may begin to point in situations where no one else is present, as a form of egocentric expression, termed "pointing-for-self". This is differentiated from "pointing-for-others" which is done while looking at a "recipient" of the pointing, and done as a communicative gesture. Kita specifies this variety of pointing in the context of being a Deixis, which is done for the benefit of an audience, as distinct from what are deemed "superficially similar behaviors". Demonstrating this, as they mature infants will first point at an object, and then visually verify whether the recipient is being attentive to the object, and by 15 months-of-age, will first verify that they have the attention of the recipient, and only then point as a means of redirecting that attention.
Children are more likely to point for adults who respond positively to the gesture. At 16 months they are less likely to point for adults who are shown to be unreliable, adults who have mislabeled objects the children already know the correct word for. At two years-of-age, children have been shown to be more likely to point for adults than for children their own age.
In school age children, finger-pointing-reading (reading while pointing to words or letters as they are spoken) can play an important role in reading development, by helping to emphasize the association between the spoken and printed word, and encouraging children to be attentive to the meaning of text.
Initial observations give some indication that deaf children acquiring the use of American Sign Language (ASL) may exhibit self-pointing behavior earlier than hearing children who are acquiring speech.
One small-scale study found that the errors in pointing behavior produced by autistic deaf children and autistic hearing children were similar.
In much of the world, pointing with the index finger is considered rude or disrespectful, especially pointing to a person. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, March 2017, s.v. finger-point Pointing with the left hand is taboo in some cultures. Pointing with an open hand is considered more polite or respectful in some contexts.
Different cultures may point using a range of variations on index finger pointing. In Japan, pointing is done with the fingers together and the palm facing upwards; in Germany, with the little finger only.
pointing with the lips for "visible and near" ... pointing with the lips plus a backwards tilt of the head for "visible and not near" ... pointing with the index finger for "not visible" (if the direction in which the object lies is known)
Alternatively, among Aboriginal Australian speakers of Arrernte, researchers identified six distinct types of pointing: index finger, open hand palm down, open hand palm vertical, "'horn-hand' pointing (with the thumb, the index finger and the pinkie extended)", pointing with a protruded lip, and pointing with the eye.
When pointing to indicate position-in-time, many, but not all cultures tend to point toward the front to indicate events in the future, and toward the back to indicate events in the past. One noted exception is that of speakers of Aymara, who instead tend to associate what is in the past, what is known, with what is in the front, what is seen, and vice versa.
However, Leavens and Hopkins note that pointing behavior has been observed in captivity for a range of species. In some, such as apes, the majority of such behavior is spontaneous (meaning without explicit training to do so), but occurs only rarely in others, such as monkeys. When present, this may be accompanied by visual monitoring of the person being interacted with, the audience of their gesture, rather than being attentive only to the object pointed to. Others have questioned whether this constitutes "true pointing", and whether non-humans have the social or cognitive abilities to understand the intentional communicative nature of pointing.
In contrast to the production of pointing, some non-human animal species can appropriately respond to pointing gestures, preferring an object or direction, which was previously indicated by the gesture. Cats, elephants, ferrets, horses and seals can follow the pointing gesture of a human above chance, while dogs can rely on different types of human points and their performance is comparable to that of 2-year-old toddlers in a similar task. However, it seems, that the default function of pointing is different in dogs and humans, because pointing actions refer to particular locations or directions for dogs in an imperative manner, while these gestures usually indicate specific objects in humans to ask for new information or to comment on an object.