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January 3, 2021 10:33 PM   Subscribe

The surprising grammar of touch A new language centered around touch is spreading within the DeafBlind community and revolutionizing how its members communicate.

Protactile, or PT, emerged in Seattle in 2007, when a group of DeafBlind people began exploring their natural tactile instincts. PT is not meant to be heard or seen, like visual sign languages. With roots in American Sign Language, Protactile has now developed into a language of its own in which the speaker articulates a message by applying different touches to the receiver’s hands, arms, and other parts of the body.

A new study (transcript of video here) demonstrates that grammar is evident and widespread in a system of communication based on reciprocal touch, thus reinforcing the notion that if one linguistic channel, such as hearing, or vision, is unavailable, people will build a new language.

(The transcript for the Seek the World Video on Youtube is available through their Facebook page)
posted by Toddles (13 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I'm getting a strong The Persistence of Vision (John Varley, NSFW) vibe from this.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:48 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]

Is this documenting the development of PT into a a fully fledged language or do people think that a grammarless language is possible ?
posted by colophon at 11:15 PM on January 3

The video discussion of the study is itself done in Protactile (with voiceover and captions.) It's really remarkable and I recommend it for sighted / hearing folks who've never seen Protactile in action; a technical linguistic discussion with different levels of abstraction done in the very language it's describing, a language which happens to be younger than Facebook.
posted by Playdoughnails at 11:36 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

It's incongruous that something like this would develop at the same time that the non-deaf, non-blind community would be struggling to develop far more restrictive and explicitly consensual forms of communicative/communal touching, basically as a counterweight to a forever of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, power imbalances, and personal autonomy. If I were to, say, take a class in PT, I feel like I would have a lot to get over in terms of just routinely touching other people in a much wider variety of appropriate places and ways. At the same time, conceptually it seems obvious that when one's knee is a public receptor rather than an intimate zone, one gets used to it pretty quickly.

I guess I'm just pleasantly freaked out to discover this is even a thing.
posted by fatbird at 11:38 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

Colophon, it's describing the development of PT and its grammar as a separate language with roots in, but distinct from ASL. For instance, the way signing space differs between ASL and PT, or how some ASL signs don't "borrow" well into PT because they aren't distinguishable by touch, so new signs are invented or adapted.

fatbird, DeafBlind writer John Lee Clark has a really interesting perspective on the cultural differences between hearing-sighted people, the Deaf community, and the DeafBlind community. Touch being the primary sense creates a very different set of norms in a culture, and can be very threatening to people outside that culture.
posted by Playdoughnails at 11:57 PM on January 3 [9 favorites]

So interesting. Please don't read this as insufferably ableist & derailist. As I get older and leakier trips voyages to the loo at night are required but I am loath to put the lights on and wake Herself. Because we've lived in the same place for 25 years I can take two paces E, 4 paces N and reach up precisely for the coat-hook on the back of the bedroom door to open it. Knowing where things are is a good reason to arrive at your final home before too many cognitive and physical deficits accumulate. Those proprioceptive skills must be really well tuned when using PT for the reasons @fatbird alludes to. But I guess users are tolerant of blundering newbies who go too far up the leg until they do it too often. In the same way that Brits of my generation are getting more huggable. That essay by John Lee Clark has lots to say about the freedoms we allow ALL children to explore their own world: for not very well evidenced reasons we roamed far and wider as 8 y.os in the 1960s than is considered desirable now.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:19 AM on January 4

When, I think in middle school, the question came up which of your senses would you most hate to lose, I remember, after having thought about it for a couple of days, feeling pleased that the answer that came to me as the most frightening prospect, that of losing all sense of touch, would be both honest and original. The overwhelming go-to’s were either sight or hearing, with smell considered unworthy of mention, and touch basically ruled out, as though it was kind of beyond question.

Plus non-verbal languages have always intrigued and fascinated me. So this is super-interesting - thanks for the link!
posted by progosk at 5:32 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I'm hearing, situationally blind (anywhere with bright light), have episodic mutism, and use ASL.

I use non-tactile ASL frequently.

I've used tactile ASL (TASL) + PT with a hearing, blind, ASL-interpreter friend. PT is completely intuitive as a side-channel addition to TASL.

We sketched a blind-signer-oriented conlang, Backtile: http://s.ai/backtile (specifically with the ideas of representing the world from the POV of blind people, avoiding PTSD triggers from a history of sexual and other assault, etc). It may be of interest.

I'm also used TASL+PT with interpreters, but only occasionally. Because I can hear them, this isn't necessary for communicating to me normally.

However, it's useful if I want a private conversation with the interpreter; if I want them to interpret something to me without voicing (e.g. because it'd interrupt someone talking); to save their voice; or to communicate directly with the Deaf member of a relay interpretation team.

Possibly of related interest, I've given a talk about the sensory experience of blind navigation (also available audio described or German translation). There are also accompanying notes (including slides, info about the hands-on workshop I ran, assistants' scripts, etc., as well as links to background info on my experience with blindness).

If you watch it, I'd appreciate if you fill out my feedback form before and after watching.

I can answer questions if you have some that aren't answered by the links.
posted by saizai at 6:03 AM on January 4 [18 favorites]

PS Re a prior commenter, I've only used PT on the arm or shoulder / upper back, not leg. Personally I would not find it comfortable to use the leg, and I've never had a need for it; the light hand 'hook' necessary anyway for tracking the other person's hands is enough contact surface to afford PT.
posted by saizai at 6:08 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

colophon: "Is this documenting the development of PT into a a fully fledged language or do people think that a grammarless language is possible ?"

Not a linguist, but as I understand grammar is the way you put words and parts of words (and signs, etc) together to transmit more complex meaning. So a "language without grammar" would just be unconnected words, (and parts of words, etc.)
posted by signal at 9:56 AM on January 4

Not a linguist, but as I understand grammar is the way you put words and parts of words (and signs, etc) together to transmit more complex meaning.

That is my understanding too, so I was confused by the Science Daily article. Based on the video discussion and reading the paper my understanding is that what is "surprising" is not that PT has grammar but that the grammar of PT has diverged in some interesting ways from that of ASL.
posted by colophon at 12:23 PM on January 4

One thing that seems confused here: tactile ASL and pro-tactile are not identical.

TASL is ASL but using the blind person's hands to 'see' the signer's hands, and sometimes some adaptations to make that easier. E.g. because it causes physical & mental strain, it's easier to follow only one hand at a time. Most ASL is understandable from only the dominant hand, either completely or by context. Some, however, does require knowing the non-dominant hand. So there are some cues for "actually you need to start following my non-dominant hand too" — or to more clearly signal through dominant hand only.

PT is additional side-channel info that can't be gotten just from hand-following a signer. Basically, it encompasses everything sighted signers would convey non-manually short of interrupting the speaker. Laughs, nods, headshakes, acknowledgements, confusion, etc. Important for making the process smoother, turn-taking, etc.

I think that people in the thread, and in the links, are conflating the two.

Personally, I wouldn't call PT a "language", nor say it has "grammar" (and yes, I have linguistics training), but ASL, TASL, and TASL+PT in combination certainly do.
posted by saizai at 8:58 AM on January 5

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