Symbolic gestures, such as pantomimes that signify actions (e.g., threading a needle) or emblems that facilitate social transactions (e.g., finger to lips indicating “be quiet”), play an important role in human communication. They are autonomous, can fully take the place of words, and function as complete utterances in their own right. The relationship between these gestures and spoken language remains unclear. We used fMRI to investigate whether these two forms of communication are processed by the same system in the human brain.

We suggest that these anterior and posterior perisylvian areas, identified since the mid-19th century as the core of the brain’s language system, are not in fact committed to language processing, but may function as a modality-independent semiotic system that plays a broader role in human communication, linking meaning with symbols whether these are words, gestures, images, sounds, or objects.