notes on a South Asian gesture pair
Version 1.0

The distinctive head and hand "woggle" gestures of South Asian language speakers is certainly a curiosity, a shibboleth of cultural identity, a political football of positive and negative social meaning in contact cultural areas, and intrinsically fascinating and joyful, but also can be assigned a definite interactional or linguistic-pragmatic meaning, useful cross-linguistically. Here I describe it and advocate its wider uptake and use. Really, why not?!


The woggle is everywhere and very recognizeable. My first day in Delhi in autumn 1986 produced a woggle story: the bus driver woggled at me after I had repeatedly asked if this was my stop, is this my stop!? Apparently he meant to say, not yes but, I am in no position to disagree with you and, since I was insisting, allowed me to get out a mile from the correct stop on a hot Indian morning. It was a hot walk, as I contemplated the Woggle.

The woggle is above the level of an unconscious indicator unlike subtleties of pronunciation which people pay no attention to or cannot quite hear accurately or describe directly. (An indirect description could be evidenced in a personal or ethnic or dialect-identity impression but not with any degree of accurate phonetic or physical description or even reference.) With the woggle everyone has a direct description. It's high in the self-consciousness hierarchy, up at the level of reproducible ethnic stereotype.

Curiosity is triggered when something curious occurs: something noticeable, and different. Certainly the woggle is a curiosity.


Judges 12:5–6 reports that the Gileadites killed 42000 Ephraimites *after* a battle, after asking each to pronounce "Shibboleth" ("head of grain", or "flood", says Wikipedia), then hearing each pronounce "siboleth". (In short, pronunciation skills become inflexible in adulthood.) In this way a stereotyped interactional form may be used to identify the ethnic regional or other personal identity or history.

The woggle is a shibboleth. Although learnable in adulthood it seems quite rare outside the native-user population, and thus can be used to identify the South Asian cultural origin of its users.

Political football

Woggle has positive and negative social meaning in contact cultural areas.

Positively, the woggle is a tool for indicating and negotiating agreement among users. As such it carries and enables the essence of humanity: cooperation. The woggle is unambiguously positive for its users. Trouble comes rather when it is not used, and agreement is not arrived at.

Negatively, the woggle can be used as an ethnic stereotype by hostile parties, to perform a distinctive gesture for mere ridicule's sake with audiences who are not users, not familiar with its form and ignorant of its meaning. Humor Theory is evoked: a moral violation is portrayed by the fun-maker in performing this non-understandable action for this non-understanding audience. Its mere nonunderstandability constitutes it as a moral violation in the eyes of the non-user audience, since generally humans seek and value conformity and mutual interpretability. Generally, change is a violation wherever detected, and difference is a violation wherever detected. These are things we as a species ought to learn to get over in my opinion, though that opinion may not be worth much. More for the ages is the story of the Tower of Babel, during the building of which the languages of the builders changed, thus preventing cooperation. For me Babel resonates as an attitude of speakers that took note of any indicator as an excuse not to cooperate: that is the underlying story of Babel. Sociolinguistics has shown humans are quite judgemental about small pronunciation differences that have social meaning in their dialect area. Thus this is no surprise.

Even so, all South Asia will not suddenly give up a key tool for negotiation and social cooperation because some parochial and xenophobic Americans enjoy a private ritual, making fun of South Asians in America, themselves ridiculous and not respectable.

Hence we might accept the Woggle, study it, describe it, understand it, and indeed it is possible we might like it so much we might even take it up ourselves, given its benefits.

Although in culturally-conformist America, suffering from Luttwak's "autism of great powers", and in the weird and false belief that all people do, must, or at least should, speak, think, and interact in exactly one way, that being the speaker's way, immigrant South Asians could find themselves a minority pressured to conform with others specifically by avoiding indicators of difference, from fashion to accent to gesture. Am I projecting? Worse yet, the vanishing minority of Americans, who with great capacity, love, and respect like to learn and to learn about other languages and cultures in order to open doorways to their unique people, ideas, and experiences, who happen to learn the head woggle and might use it even unconsciously with Indians, are barely distinguishable from a high school dropout ethnocentric bully using a badly executed Indian head woggle to make fun of immigrants to an audience of similars. The bullies, if they exist, make a bad name for the language learners, and then the so-called diversity warriors who certainly do exist (and cancelled Apu from The Simpsons for this reason), who also cannot imagine real difference or change, call for the language learners to stop using this most useful feature of human interaction. It's a political football. Just as any living language is constantly borrowing concepts and expressions from other languages, similarly the Woggle, being learnable, useful, and connecting among people, ought also to be borrowable, and allowed to be borrowed; in fact I advocate everyone learn it, and use it as applicable. For that, I must describe this wonderful thing so you can understand it too.

Fascinating, joyful

My own personal experience with the woggle began in 1982 at Muktananda's ashram near Mumbai, where Indian and non-Indian, chanters and meditators, soon to include myself, could be seen doing the woggle with one or both hands as some ineffable emotional expression, somehow as if in direct interaction with divinity itself. Believe me it does expresses something mystical. I was making a study of the Guru at the time, and his head woggle could be so subtle that I could only imitate it by having the thought rather than even so much as an intention of the movement. It doesn't take much. Might it be a linguistic form that can be expressed by the mere intention of its meaning, not even so much as the intention to act out its form.

We will see how it brings interpersonal connection.

I can report that on every trip to India, a little bit of the woggle makes fast friends with many. So let's open our minds to the possibility that we could do it too, productively and appropriately and correctly.

Describing form, assigning meaning

Reference frame, definitions

For a description, let's work from a reference human body frame so directions will be meaningful within the description. Users could orient differently but this reference orientations will help us discuss it.

Assume the head is vertically above shoulders, upper arm hanging down vertically, forearm extended forward sloping upward from elbow to wrist at 45 degrees from the horizontal, hand open but relaxed, thumb on top. Now, "hand pronation" means turning the axis of the forearm top-inward so the thumb points toward the opposite hand, while "hand supination" means turning it top-outward so the pinky finger is toward the opposite hand, and the thumb points away laterally. Now we know up, down, and two kinds of sideways (rotating both ways), so we can be clear. I'm left handed so I won't be using my right hand as the standard example. It works on both sides, just use a mirror.

Offer, Accept, Agree

Offer: Form: hand supination. Meaning: "I offer".

Accept: Form: hand pronation. Meaning: "I accept".

Agree: the sequence, Offer + Accept, indicating offer plus acceptance, logically implies, therefore means, (one-sided) agreement. If terms are explicit and audience fails to object, then (two-sided) Agreement can be inferred.

I'll stick my neck out and claim: The instrument of Offer and Accept may be either hand or head. That is, both hand and head movements are used, which are as similar in form as possible, and carry the same meaning. The head movements we recognize as Woggle seem semantically the same as the hand movements I've described as Offer + Accept: they have a similar bi-directional rotation and can be understood with the same meaning, as Offer + Accept. I suspect, but am not sure, that head Woggle even offers the possibility of separation between the two messages, Offer versus Accept, if only one direction is emphasized, followed by pause-and-hold. Indeed, if the head returns to center, the interaction is complete, but if held at the posture of maximum rotation on the first half-rotation, then the interaction awaits resolution.

Woggle: Form: Imagine an axis, instead of within the forearm as for the corresponding hand movements, through the head horizontally through the nose or upper lip and out the back of the neck. (Optionally, but better yet, let the axis drop from the horizontal, down in the back, perhaps by tipping the head itself back.) Now, rotate the head as much as 20-30 degrees around the axis. (Since the atlas-skull joint supports a smaller maximum angle of rotation as compared with the radius-humerus joint, head rotates less than forearm, but this appears to be a difference immaterial to the message.) Chin, then, rotates slightly in one direction while skull rotates in a larger movement in the opposite direction. Pause there, or return rotation back to center or past center, stopping or continuing ad libitum. (Imaginably: until your counterparty returns the gesture, indicating that you both know you are both on the same page.) Amount of rotation can be as much as you like, or as little; even a hint of the thought of it can be detected as some subtle and tiny movement that humans are well attuned to and that fully communicates its meaning.

Meaning: "Woggle" seems to means Offer on the first half-rotation, then Offer+Accept if continued.

Discussion: Obviously unlike hands the head is not laterally asymetrical, so it doesn't intrinsically associate one fixed side or direction as the starting direction, as the hand, thumb out, can do with the Offer gesture. Perhaps as I say here it's First vs Non-First that distinguishes Offer from Accept in the head woggle, but it could be that handedness predicts which direction goes first and thus means Offer (if it does mean Offer), or it could be that since in a negotiating pair the party that proposes the terms of the to-be-accepted arrangement may by default be understood as the one Offering that party should be expected to Woggle first, or half-woggle, meaning Offer, in association with proposing those terms. Prediction: If recipients of an Offer are seen to Woggle they should not be seen to half-Woggle, since they are not making the Offer, yet they can felicitously Agree. Prediction: Once negotiators both Woggle over a proposal, further continuance adds no information unless there is insecurity on one side, so the second should Woggle once and the first then immediately stop, in the most obvious model of felicitous and meaningful Woggling. Video and timing studies are imaginable and results might easily disconfirm; yet that would be interesting too.

Other analyses

Consider alternatively, are these gestures like a question mark and a period or exclamation point? Elsewhere I used "?!" as a label for the general category of a (fuzzy) logical operator, as each operator considers a question and gives an answer.

The woggle's question, not being spoken, may be co-expressed verbally, or may be inchoate, or you might say quite abstract, as in, What are you doing? or "Hunh?". Indeed it might refer to salient elements of context or implied intentions of one or the other as imagined by the user: for example, permission for a implicitly-known or previously evoked possible action, such as precedence in right-of-way, or permission to take something.

It seems typically to refer to the state of the user's mind rather than a fully elaborated sentence with a question word in it, expressed verbally and thus shared as to content, if not mutual acquiescence, in the minds of both user and audience. The definition or even presence of terms seems optional. If the woggle is in a way solipsistic, it need not require the audience to take an action. Thus Offer, thus Acceptance, both of which do not depend on or require any particular audience response or turn.

Generally a linguistic form may have more or less to say. The less it says, the more abstract its meaning or interpretation. Offer and Accept may be in contexts bleached of specific requests or demand, in which case they specify personal relationship between user and audience: Offer implies user is connecting with audience, user is open to audience's presence and contribution or intention, whatever that may be. Offer gives space to audience for audience to take, according to audience's decision or action or idea or intention. Go ahead, you be you, I offer you my attention, I offer you space, I am open to your being, your saying, your doing, your choice. Offer is quite lovely, interpersonally sweet. Offer gives, and giving is rather like blessing.

Giving more detail (for example by extending, pointing, or shaking your hand at some particular item while that hand does an Offer gesture) subspecifies the meaning of Offer (in the example it would indicate that audience has permission to take the item). Offer + That. Simple enough. If the parties are engaged in discussion of some more or less explicit controversy or choice, Offer says user would allow audience user's choice, while Accept says user accepts audience's choice.

These are non-phonological; essentially linguistic; not necessarily deictic, but they can combine with deictic gesture as in Offer + That. They have definite semantic meaning in the context of user with audience.

Others have said the woggle means Yes. But Yes is not a primitive pragmatic/interactional functor however simple it may seem, because in addition to the presence of real or implied interlocutors, it requires coming to agreement first as to an understanding of what is being agreed (terms), second an assertion by one party that they would accept it (offer), third that the other party does accept it (acceptance), fourth that the first party acknowledges the acceptor's acceptance (close) thus closing the loop and the agreement. Each of these steps is a pragmatic condition, you might say a speech act; each could be contradicted by explicit utterance or action including slightly-varied repetition to change the deal with only the variable part changing, or even merely cessation of participation in the interaction. Each step may be assumed by a participant without explicit interaction in the belief they are on the same page, if only to find out later that a renegotiation is needed.

These components of an agreement process (participants, terms, offer, acceptance, and close) are separable and may be implicit or explicit.

Somewhat similar gestures and meanings

In this list the first two and perhaps the last are at least South Asian, possibly more widely distributed. At least, I saw them there.

Prevalance: historically, geographically

South Asian cultural diaspora events occurred as long ago as the Bronze Age into Bactria/Margiana (Afghanistan) where prehistoric Indus Valley seals have been found. Waves of cultural and economic exchange successively spread Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam across South Asia to Central and Southeast Asia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc., over millenia. The wikipedia page on "Greater India" is a fascinating read on this line. The Chinese importation of Buddhism, still visible even in Korea and Japan, and now in Zen Buddhist monasteries in California, could be seen as a living part of this diaspora of culture, if not equally of population. If Offer, Accept, and Assert are found on religious iconography across Asia, as simply the same historically as has been used in living cultures in South Asia since at least that time, then we have a simple explanation for why essentially the same gestures with essentially the same meanings are found in both. The claim that arises from these coincidences is that the Hindu and Buddhist South Asian cultural diaspora actually spread these very gestures but captured in static sculptural form rather than actual usage taken up by all the people. The question arises, did this come with the Indo Aryans? Or was it with the Dravidians who gave it to the Indo Aryans in their contact areas? Less North, More South suggests these are Dravidian gestures.

Or do Thais do the Woggle? I'm sorry, I forgot; if they do then I'm a native woggler, since I was a native Thai speaker once (up to age 4); yet I've forgotten everything.

We can inquire about modern dialect geography of these forms. A massive South Asian Diaspora wave occurred after the British outlawed slavery in its colonies after 1834 and until 1917, largely substituting Indian indentured servitude for African slavery in its island colonies in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Is Woggle today, was it ever, used in Guyana, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, or Jamaica?

Waves continue to this date, visible in Wikipedia reports of Government-of-India classifications such as Persons of Indian Origin, Overseas Citizens of India, Non-Resident Indians, surpassing 30 million by 2023. Worker migration and remittances of of earnings are a fat slice of the economic pie in South Asia: >USD176B in 2022, and >23% of GDP just in Nepal. My host/concierge at Hotel Tom in Tokyo was Nepali: what a joy to have Hindi in common and be able to communicate!

Some claim the Woggle is more vigorous in South India and less in the North. My 2022 trip to Nepal found it absent in the hill capital Kathmandu where many Chinese and Tibetan faces are seen, but widespread in the Gangetic plain city of Janakpur, full of Indian looking folks. Whatever its history it certainly hasn't expanded outward forever monotonically.

I invite data on the spread of the Woggle. The usual questions of dialect geography and historical linguistic change apply. Who has it, who does not? Did anyone lose it? Did others acquire it? In what if any contact situations does it move the dialect boundary and in which directions and why? Send me your data, let's make maps!


I promised we would see how the Woggle brings interpersonal connection.

Obviously Offer and Acceptance are interpersonally connecting, if both are done authentically and freely. The implicit, deeply emotional, or may I say, heart connection of authentic respect for the other's choices and position implied by Offer, and acceptance of them expressed by Accept, should not be denied or passed over in considering the linguistic and social meaning of this distinctive form. They do indeed have those implications.

In our anxious age where others' respect for one's own choices and position are far from expectable and generally insecurely wondered about, the woggle is socially soothing and connecting. It carries and expresses a presumption that the other is worth listening to, that the user is interested in discovering the position or choices of the other, that their position is going to be respected. "Offer" means that audience is free to accept or to refuse, it doesn't presuppose one or the other. Audience gets to make their own choice. This is also called respect. So in an anxious age, more Woggle, more Better.

More, consider the solipsistic use of Woggle as by meditators focusing, again emotionally on their conception of or interface with divinity: Offer expresses Openness thereto which may go so far as the obliteration of ego in the shining face of the Godhead, or however you may translate that, but in any case, obviously, a wide doorway to bliss according to Bliss Theory, while Accept expresses uptake of whatever gifts that that divinity may be giving. These gestures may therefore rationally accompany spiritual practice up to and beyond enlightenment itself. (I wrote the previous sentence before discovering that Assert = Bhumisparsha is portrayed on sculptures of the Buddha at the very time of his enlightenment. I cannot imagine greater confirmation.)

We can only hope that inauthentic performance, without experiencing the intentions which are the inner meanings of Offer and Accept, does not become prevalent in mere imitation or false portrayal of an alien form. At least if we can be in contact with cultural South Asians who do it authentically, perhaps that can keep us regulated, so that we may avoid falseness.

Modulo inauthenticity, allow me to say, Try it, you'll like it. I Offer it to you. And whatever you do, I Accept it.

Thank you for that, and for your attention, and for sharing. It has been my pleasure.

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Copyright © 2024 Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Created 1/28/2024; Edited February 29, March 3, 2024