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ANU - CoEDL Linguistics Seminar: The Difference Intersubjective Grammar Makes for Protactile DeafBlind Communities in the US, 12 Mar

Australian National University, Outreach

Date: 24 February 2021

Seminar: The Difference Intersubjective Grammar Makes for Protactile DeafBlind Communities in the US

Speaker: Terra Edwards, Saint Louis University

When: 12 Mar 2021, 9am

Where: via zoom (please email for zoom link invitation)


This presentation is concerned with grammatical systems that target intersubjectivity, emerging in communities of DeafBlind signers in the US who communicate via reciprocal, tactile channels—a practice known as “protactile”. The talk analyzes some grammatical mechanisms that target intersubjective coordination in protactile language. This includes a set of four deictic terms: two locatives (discrete location vs. path) and two demonstratives (foreground vs. background). Building on prior research, I argue that these forms can be tied, diachronically, to back-channeling signals, which emerged earlier, and phonological elements, which emerged later. While languages used in Deaf, sighted communities, (as well as many of those used in DeafBlind communities), are articulated using the two hands (and arms) of the signer, protactile language is articulated by coordinating the hands and arms of both the signer and the addressee (Edwards and Brentari 2020). Therefore, Signer 1 (conveyer of information) must have efficient and effective ways of requesting the participation of Signer 2 (receiver of information) in the unfolding of the utterance. As such a system has become conventionalized among protactile signers, a new class of “propriotactic” units has emerged (Edwards and Brentari 2021). These forms direct attention, or “activate” parts of the addressee’s body for purposes of co-articulation, and therefore incorporate intersubjective functions in ways that are (to my knowledge) unattested in the world’s languages. I conclude by heeding Evans et al.’s (2018:2) call to consider “what difference it makes […] for intersubjective coordination to be managed by engagement systems as opposed to other, non-grammatical means.”


Edwards, Terra & Brentari, Diane (2020). “Feeling Phonology: The emergence of tactile phonological patterns in protactile communities in the United States". Language 96, 819-840.

Edwards, Terra & Brentari, Diane (2021). The Grammatical Incorporation of Demonstratives in an Emerging Tactile Language. Frontiers in Psychology 11.

Evans, Nicholas, Bergqvist, Henrik & Roque, Lila San (2018). The grammar of engagement II: typology and diachrony. Language and Cognition 10, 141-170.

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