Menu Close

Braille – A Journey

By Harris Mowbray

Physically inscribing language into writing has been useful to humanity for the past few thousand years, but this medium of communication has been unavailable to the visually-impaired until relatively recently in modern history. In the early 19th century, Louis Braille created a compact system of tactile dots in order to accurately represent the orthography of the French language, which was inspired by an older tactile system called Night Writing (invented for military purposes around a decade before). This system was later improved upon to write musical notation, mathematical symbols, and other languages around the world. International standards were established by UNESCO in 1951 in order to make sure that Braille was similar for every language (with a few exceptions like Korean and Japanese).

For example, the Braille glyph “⠙” refers to “d” in English, but “δ” in Greek, “д” in Russian, “ד‎” in Hebrew, and “د” in Arabic, all of which make the same sound. This allows people who are literate in Braille to pick up any new language relatively quickly. Of course, if a blind English Braille user wanted to learn Spanish Braille for example, they would have to learn a couple new glyphs corresponding to unique letters such as “ñ” and “ü” which do not exist in English orthography. Basically, to summarize, every language has a system to represent every letter (and numbers, punctuation marks, and other symbols) in Braille.

Well, as it turns out, not every language has Braille, after all there are around seven thousand languages presently spoken in the world. There has to be some semi-important language out there without Braille, I thought. I quickly started researching endangered languages in Europe, such as Livonian, Kashubian, and Sorbian to see if they had Braille yet. Apparently, they didn’t, despite having unique graphemes like “ȭ”, “ù” and “ŕ” which would necessitate such a system. 

I knew that these Braille alphabets were not going to invent themselves, so I quickly developed Braille alphabets for the orthographes of various languages (based on international standards), and reached out to various communities, organizations, and governments around the world to see if they would be interested. 90% of the time they are not interested or I cannot even get a single response, but there are some communities especially in Central/Eastern Europe who positively received my ideas for implementing Braille. Newspapers and TV channels around the world started interviewing me to learn why I did this and what my secret was to developing these alphabets. Well, as to why I did it, it seems like the right thing to do and nobody else was solving the problem. I’m just vaguely altruistic, nothing more. My secret? There is none, it’s literally just assigning patterns to a few letters based on international standards. It takes me a few minutes and it’s so easy that I could seriously do it in my sleep. 

But if it’s so easy, why hasn’t anyone else done it? Why were there languages with over ten million speakers that didn’t have a Braille system in the 21st century? Thinking about this question for too long is like staring into the void and sometimes it keeps me up at night. It makes me think about what other unsolved linguistic problems are out there, waiting for someone to solve them. 

Get more interesting language and linguistics content in our magazine. You can subscribe below

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.