A Study On Handedness In Citonga Multimodal Interactions
CiTonga speakers in Malawi describe dominant use of the left hand as distasteful and offensive in face-to-face multimodal interactions, communicative exchanges involving both oral-auditory and visual-gestural actions. They observe a left hand taboo on religious and social grounds, linking the right hand to "good" and the left hand to "bad". Despite this widespread perception, ciTonga speakers were often observed using their left hand and eschewing the taboo even in serious situations where politeness is a social imperative. In this study, I aim to resolve this paradox by arguing that the significance of left hand taboo is domain specific. To do this, I collected 101 multimodal interactions--over 50 hours of recording--through participant observation in Cifila and Kavuzi, where ciTonga is spoken as a native language. I analyzed the gestures in two domains of interaction: everyday rituals and ordinary talks. For both domains, flexibility of handedness is determined by a ranking of four different contextual constraints. I proposed a decision matrix to describe how the type and scale of a constraint can explain the permissiveness of left hand use. CiTonga kinesic signs can elevate to taboo status when they violate the handedness convention for interlocutors with distant social relationships, but over-producing deferential signs can create a social imbalance between close affiliates. Selecting an interaction-appropriate hand preference is therefore an integral part of ciTonga communicative competence. A study on taboo in multimodality shows the ways in which domain structure and purpose shape the application of large sociocultural ideologies to spontaneous interactions in daily life.