Growing up blind during the 1800s wasn’t easy – but Louis Braille made the best of it. He was a successful scholar, gifted musician and by the time he was 15, he had crafted a written language that people around the world have recognised as an official standard since 1852.
Braille’s six-dot system was loosely based on the ‘night writing’ code developed by Charles Barbier for Napoleonic soldiers. Night writing, though rejected by the military for being too complex, was easily streamlined into the Braille system we know today. It provided a true revolution for blind people – allowing all manner of written communication to be produced for a previously excluded population.
What is Braille?
Braille is a tactile system of writing used to publish material for visually impaired people. Though it is the Braille system most people are familiar with today, there are a number of other tactile reading/writing systems out there – some are merely embossed versions of the more traditional alphabet, others are based on short-hand symbols and a few were conjured up by scholars in competition with one another, these have the most intriguing symbols but are utterly random and thus proved unsuccessful.
However, one additional system of tactile writing survives from the mid 1800s, the Moon system. This was developed by Dr William Moon, and is based on a simplified alphabet – a total of nine characters that represent all the letters of the traditional alphabet depending on which way they’re facing. Today, Moon is still used to provide an alternative to Braille for older people, younger people and others who have a less-attuned sense of touch.
Braille’s system was originally derived for use in France, but Braille was adopted by the English with relative ease and eventually it even prevailed in the USA. However, it was 1932 before the UK and USA managed to establish a standard for English Braille. During the intervening years, American Braille was a hodge-podge of variations on the original system, making it cost-prohibitive for publishers to produce works for blind people, as there were often as many as three variations required to satisfy the audience.
Today’s Braille Alphabet
As previously mentioned, Braille is a six-dot system, where the collections of dots are referred to as cells – each cell is essentially the shape of a domino. The dots on each cell are numbered down the columns, starting with the left. On the left side are dots one, two and three and the right column contains dots four, five and six. In Braille, alphabet letters and numbers are derived from the presence, or absence, of dots and their position in the cell – there is a logistical limit of 64 combinations of dots, and some are left out because they’re too similar to one another.
In general, you can assume that the Braille cell’s top four dots are used for letters A to J, as well as the numbers zero to nine. The bottom left dot is added to create letters K through T. Finally, both bottom dots are added to the codes for letters A to E to make up the rest of the alphabet – except for the letter W, which wasn’t part of Braille’s original system as the French don’t use the letter.
Today, Braille text is often referred to as being in a ‘grade’ of Braille. These grades are based on the ease with which the text can be read. Grade 1, for example, is a Braille text with each word spelled out in full – no abbreviations or contractions. This is the version of Braille that beginners are most likely to use. Grade 2 is the type of Braille most documents are published in for use by the general public. This is because Grade 2 uses a lot of contractions to economise on space and make reading quicker.
Special Braille Translation
Often, when documents in non-European languages require Braille translation, the cells are derived from the non-Latin alphabet in question by first deriving a ‘Latin’ version of the other alphabet. For example, the Greek character gamma is written in Braille as a Latin G, even though gamma shares the position of the Latin letter C. While this presents its own unique challenges, the addition of accented characters and longer alphabets make things a little more complex.
Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and even Hebrew texts are available in variants of Braille. Each of these languages has it’s own particular quirks that mandate adaptations in traditional Braille. These adaptations, however, are something of a two-way street. For example, Hebrew Braille is read from left to right, as opposed to Hebrew text, which is read from right to left.
The genius of Braille’s creation is that the basic form can be reinvented to suit so many variables for languages and alphabets around the world. Braille has been extended to make mathematics and even music readily accessible for those with visual impairments.