One of the most important inventions in the history of literacy was the invention of braille. It’s a pretty simple idea, turning letters into dots so that they can be read using touch, and it granted a huge number of people the ability to read. But what is braille? Did any writing exist for visually impaired people before then? And how does it work in languages other than English? We looked into these questions to create a quick guide to the writing system.
What Is Braille?
Braille is a straightforward idea. It turns every letter and punctuation mark in the alphabet into a matrix of six dots. Each of these six dots forms one single cell. It’s not a language on its own; it’s simply a different writing system. You are probably familiar with it to some degree because it is sometimes included on public signs in order to improve accessibility for visually impaired people.
There is some variation to braille, which is generally differentiated by three different grades. Grade 1 is the simplest kind of braille, where each letter of each word is spelled out. The problem with that is spelling each word in its entirety causes texts to be massive. To help this, Grade 2 braille, or “contracted braille,” was invented. This pairs up letters into chunks, so “th,” for example, can be encapsulated in a single cell. This may seem minor, but when printing an entire book, this can save a lot of space.
There’s also Grade 3 braille, which is a more casual braille. Unlike Grades 1 and 2, there is no standard for this. Entire words are shortened into a few cells, somewhat comparable to the abbreviations people use in text messages. For example, “possibly” has been styled as “p.y” and yesterday shortened to “yd”.
How Was Braille Invented?
The precursor to braille was night writing, which wasn’t intended to help visually impaired people. In 1808, Charles Barbier developed a system of night writing for Napoleon Bonaparte’s army to help them pass messages that could be read in the dark. It was somewhat similar to braille, but instead of a six-dot matrix, it was a 12-dot matrix, making each character twice as long as modern braille (it was two dots across and six dots long). Also, instead of each cell being equivalent to one letter, each represented one sound. This proved too difficult to read and understand for French soldiers, and it was pretty much abandoned.
A little under a decade later, Barbier’s night writing was discovered by another Frenchman: Louis Braille. Braille, who had lost his sight as a child, changed it from a 12-dot to a six-dot matrix, as he realized the smaller characters could be easily read with the surface of one finger. He also changed it so that each cell was equivalent to one French letter. He published his work in 1829, and the second edition he published in 1837 was the basis for pretty much every braille system since.
What Existed Before Braille?
Braille was not the only attempt to make a writing system for visually impaired people. There were a few other attempts at making a tactile way to read.
One was the Moon System of Embossed Writing, which was invented in the mid-19th century by Englishman William Moon. While the Moon System came after the invention of braille, it caught on in the United Kingdom. The Moon System uses lines and curves that resemble the letters they’re meant to represent, making it a bit simpler to understand for people who are already used to written letters. For this reason, it’s still in use today in the U.K. for people who lost their vision later in life.
Why not just emboss regular letters? This was attempted, but because of the intricacy of the alphabet, it was hard to understand. One attempt at a readable embossed Latin alphabet was Boston Line Type, which was invented in the United States around the same time that braille was being created on the other side of the ocean. Boston Line Type was an embossed letter system that eliminated capitals and made letters more angular, so it would be easier to read. It was popular in the United States for about half a century, before eventually being replaced with braille.
Another option was New York Point, which was a popular American writing system in the mid-1800s. This was much closer to braille, but instead of cells being three dots tall and two across, it was two dots tall and four across. In every other way, it worked the same as braille but lost out in the War of the Dots.
Do Other Languages Have Braille?
Considering braille was created for French, not English, it’s no surprise braille is not a monolingual writing system. It has had to be adapted for each language individually — Spanish braille needs cells to show for accent marks and English needed to create one for the letter “w” — but it works similarly around the world. Even mathematics has its own braille for all its symbols called Nemeth Braille.
The work to unify brailles has been pretty complicated. Because of the way braille works, there are only 63 possible symbols that can be represented with six dots. Nemeth Braille, for example, needs to be specifically indicated because a single braille simply can’t contain all the math symbols and all the language symbols. There is now a Unified English Braille that was created to be used across disciplines, but it is not without its critics.
There have been attempts at unifying at least the brailles that use the Latin alphabet. In 1878, a congress of Americans, Egyptians, Germans and French people all agreed to base their brailles on the original French characters. Other congresses in 1929 and 1950 continued to corral the world’s brailles so they were similar enough to be intelligible across language barriers. The original 26 characters are now pretty standard across languages, but when you go beyond that there is plenty of variation.
Languages that don’t use Latin alphabets have to be even more innovative, especially when they use far more than 63 characters. Mainland Chinese Braille, for example, uses multiple cells to represent characters. Japanese braille also uses a method nothing like other brailles, and has an extension that uses eight dots in a cell instead of six. Each language has had to determine efficient ways to mold braille to fit its own writing system.
How Popular Is Braille?
The popular conception is that pretty much all visually impaired people use braille, but this is not true. One report put out by the National Federation of the Blind in 2009 stated that only 10 percent of Americans who are blind can read. The United States is far from alone in this, with countries around the world becoming less literate in braille.
Part of the reason for the decline is that technology provides alternatives to braille. While there are refreshable computer screens that can create braille text, the far more popular and accessible option is a screen reader, which simply reads aloud the text from the screen.
Braille remains important, however. Advocates point out the fact that the employment rate is higher for people who learn to read braille, and it helps with literacy for children who are visually impaired. It is more difficult to learn braille after childhood, so the push right now is mostly toward education. While technology will likely increase accessibility for non-braille options, braille is unlikely to lose its usefulness any time soon.