By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
January 4 is the birthday of Louis Braille (1809–1852), the founder of the embossed dot system of representing letters that bears his name. Started in France and adopted world-wide, by the mid-20th century Braille had become the hope for a universal system of writing for the blind, a dream that by the early 21st century had faded away.
Born sighted, at the age of three Braille was blinded in an accident. He was sent to one of the premier schools for teaching the blind, the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles, in Paris, where he excelled and became a teacher at an early age. By the time he was 16, Braille worked out his system of encoding language in raised dots. It swept away other systems, which usually tried to retain the shape of the letters of the Latin alphabet, using either large metal type or embossed letters, chiefly for the benefit of the teachers and patrons.1
Braille’s innovation was related to “night writing,” a system developed by Charles Barbier in the French infantry in Napoleonic times to communicate without sound as part of tactical warfare. Night writing was phonetic, however—perhaps on the premise that most soldiers were illiterate. Louis Braille was literate, and intended his system for the literate. Each written letter corresponded to some arrangement of six dots, arrayed three high and two wide. With 6 dots to work with, there were 64 distinct possibilities—more than enough for letters, numbers, punctuation, and more. And encoding was simple: the dots were raised on the page by pressing or punching through from behind, allowing the blind to write as well as read.
Braille’s system eventually forced out its competitors. But as the system spread, problems of local use arose. Although Western European languages all used the Latin alphabet, different languages have slightly different character sets: some added umlauts, accents, and cedillas; others dropped letters; and yet others added non-Latin letters.
Early on, British English Braille and American English Braille diverged. Though British and American printed English share a single alphabet, it is subtly different from French. At the time, the French considered W almost as a “loan letter,” and it was made an addition to the regular alphabet. Thus French Braille followed that order and set up the letters so that X followed V, and W was last. Nineteenth-century British Braille followed the French pattern, while American Braille put the W after V, while using the French Braille character for X. Thus W, X, Y, and Z were differently rendered in British Braille and American Braille, and Braille productions of the two countries were mutually incomprehensible. (A similar situation had developed between Egyptian Arabic and Algerian Arabic.) An 1878 conference sorted it out, enshrining Louis Braille’s original transliterations as the international standard. 2
Braille systems extended worldwide, encompassing not only alphabetic systems using Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Hebrew letters, but also ideographic ones. Chinese Braille made the letters represent spoken Chinese words, conveying meaning by a combination of phonetic expression and context. Local usages remained a problem, though, and by the middle of the 20th century, the community of instructors of the blind were looking for “world Braille.” Initially prompted by the proliferation of Braille systems in India, UNESCO organized a meeting in Paris in 1950. The conference led to the establishment of the World Braille Council, which chose Sir Clutha Nantes Mackenzie (1895–1966) as its chair.3 Mackenzie was well known in the Braille world. A New Zealander, blinded at the battle of Gallipoli in World War I, he was director of the New Zealand Institute for the Blind from 1921–1938, and then variously worked in India, the United States, China, Malaysia, Uganda, Egypt, Aden (now Yemen), and Ethiopia on issues of blindness.4
In 1953 he and the Council issued World Braille Usage: A Survey of Efforts towards Uniformity of Braille Notation (Paris, UNESCO), both a history of the development of Braille and, as its subtitle indicates, a survey of usage and a plea for uniformity. Two further editions of the report—1990 and 2013—expanded greatly the countries and languages covered. The 2013 edition presented different Braille renderings for 133 languages. But by that edition, the authors also acknowledged that the long-sought uniformity was not to be found. Unlike the earlier works, no attempt was made in the book’s organization to show commonalities of Braille letters across languages: instead each language is separately represented. “While there is still interest in universal agreement on characters that are used throughout the world, the emphasis now is on unification within languages, as driven by Braille authorities and other organizations.”5 The work was decentered from Europe: Latin letters were no longer the standard, and, instead of the World Braille Charts that marked the 1953 edition—derived from Louis Braille’s French—the 2013 editions began with a Braille “International Phonetic Alphabet.” Unity proved elusive, when faced with linguistic self-determination.
What is the future of Braille? Text-to-speech technologies have reduced Braille fluency. But technology has also increased Braille usage, with better ways of producing Braille texts, as well as ways of interacting with computers and smart phones.6 Nonetheless, over the last 50 years, American Braille literacy has dropped from 50% in school-age blind children, to about 10%. As a medium of cultural expression, Braille’s future is far from certain. But it’s had a 180-year run, quite remarkable for a technology!
1. The Moon System of Embossed Reading, developed by Englishman William Moon (1818–1894), used simplified letters based on the Latin alphabet, but Braille proved better for most.
2. Other complications came as some assigned the Braille letters with the fewest dots to the most common letters—much like Morse code assigns the shortest symbols to the most common letters—and thus both changed Braille’s assignments, and made the new ones language-dependent, as letter frequency differs between languages.
3. See Gabriel Ferrer, The Story of Blindness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 116–17; “International Meeting on Braille Uniformity,” in World Braille Usage (Paris: UNESCO, 1953), pp. 141–45.
4. “Sir Clutha Nantes Mackenzie,” An Encyclopedia of New Zealand 1966, in http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/mackenzie-sir-clutha-nantes, accessed December 18, 2014.
5. World Braille Usage, 3rd (Washington, DC: UNESCO, 2013), p. viii. http://www.perkins.org/assets/downloads/worldbrailleusage/world-braille-usage-third-edition.pdf, accessed December 18, 2014.
6. Ibid., pp. viii-ix.
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