Talking About the Absent and the Abstract: Referential Communication in Language and Gesture

Elena Luchkina*, Sandra Waxman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human language permits us to call to mind objects, events, and ideas that we cannot witness directly, either because they are absent or because they have no physical form (e.g., people we have not met, concepts like justice). What enables language to transmit such knowledge? We propose that a referential link between words, referents, and mental representations of those referents is key. This link enables us to form, access, and modify mental representations even when the referents themselves are absent (“absent reference”). In this review we consider the developmental and evolutionary origins of absent reference, integrating previously disparate literatures on absent reference in language and gesture in very young humans and gesture in nonhuman primates. We first evaluate when and how infants acquire absent reference during the process of language acquisition. With this as a foundation, we consider the evidence for absent reference in gesture in infants and in nonhuman primates. Finally, having woven these literatures together, we highlight new lines of research that promise to sharpen our understanding of the development of reference and its role in learning about the absent and the abstract.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • absent reference
  • abstract reference
  • gesture
  • infants
  • language acquisition
  • primates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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