19/03/24 - Laura Volpato (Ca' Foscari University of Venice)

Title: "The phonological inventory of Italian social-haptic communication"

Social-haptic communication (SHC) is a communication method consisting of tactile messages (‘haptices’, Lahtinen 2008) performed on the body of the deafblind person to convey environmental information and the emotional feedback of the interlocutor. 

According to Lahtinen (2008), SHC seems to contain a limited set of phonemic units, called haptemes (similar to phonological parameters in sign languages). In this seminar I will illustrate the haptemes found in 70 Italian hand-based haptices negotiated within the Italian deafblind community and contained in the Italian SHC dictionary (https://www.spreadthesign.com/it.it/social_haptic/). Examples of haptices used in real contexts will also be provided. 

Given the similarities between Italian hand-based haptices and Italian Sign Language (LIS) signs, the visual-based model adopted for the analysis of LIS phonology by Mantovan in Branchini and Mantovan (2020, 2022) was integrated with Lahtinen’s (2008) touch-based model, allowing to easily compare LIS and Italian SHC. Similarities and differences between the two will be outlined. 

The haptemes identified by Lahtinen (2008) and Lahtinen et al. (2012) were all found in Italian SHC. A novel element that was first observed in Italian SHC is the contact surface, which seems to create minimal contrasts rather than the general handshape. Furthermore, the number of active articulators was not considered as a distinctive element in Finnish SHC, while it is in Italian SHC. In contrast, the change of rhythm and pauses (Lahtinen et al. 2012) seems to create no minimal contrast in Italian haptices. Instead, they may have a pragmatic role. 

Italian haptices, according to the features of tactile perception, seem to display a great variability in both the place of articulation and the handshape, while less variability is found for movement, which seems to have a prominent role in the detection and interpretation of haptices.

The analysis showed that the phonology of haptices seems to respond to both physical constraints (body positions and tactile perceptibility) and contextual factors, such as the flexibility in the choice of the positions of provider and receiver, the contextual use of other communication modes, the type of relationship between provider and receiver, and the presence/absence of a sighted audience.