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Ten braille facts / ⠼⠁⠚⠀⠃⠗⠁⠊⠇⠇⠑⠀⠋⠁⠉⠞⠎

One of the fun things about working at Wellcome is that there are lots of unusual things in the collection. A while back, one of the archivists was asking if anybody knew any braille – they’d been given some braille documents to catalogue, but they didn’t know what they were about!

In a strange coincidence, I went down a rabbit hole learning about braille when I was much younger, but I’d never expected it to have a practical use – barring a sudden loss of eyesight. I was able to read enough to get an idea of what the documents were about (a women’s health centre in London), so it got catalogued correctly – and I mentioned it in a Dreamwidth entry. Rae was interested and asked me to write more about braille, so somewhat belatedly, here are ten facts about braille:

1. Braille is a tactile writing system.

It’s designed to be used by people who are visually impaired. Rather than seeing a printed character with your eye, you gently run your finger over the page, and feel the indents of a braille pattern. Each pattern is a six-dot “cell”, arranged two wide by three high, and different dots are raised to create each pattern. Braille is usually printed on embossed paper, with the dots raised from the surface of the page.

A finger feeling raised dots on a printed page of braille.
Image by Stefan Malmesjö, used under CC BY.

2. Braille wasn’t the first writing system for the visually impaired.

Although braille is the most common and popular system in use today, there were other systems that predate it – and the inventor of braille was aware of at least some of them.

The precursors to braille also used embossed type – the imprint of the letters were raised off the page. Louis Braille (who invented braille) learnt to read with an embossed type system created by Valentin Haüy, because he studied at Haüy’s school (one of the first schools for blind children). But Haüy’s system was expensive to produce, and although children could read, there was no hope of writing something themselves.

Six rows, each showing an alphabet in a different writing style.
Image from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), by Charles George Herbermann.

Another system that Braille was aware of was night writing, developed for use in the French military. It used a dot pattern similar to braille, but with twelve instead of six dots. This turned out to be a flaw – an individual character was too big to feel with a single finger.

Aged 15, Louis Braille created braille as an alternative to these systems that would be easier to read and would allow blind students to write.

3. Braille was originally written with the same tool that blinded its inventor.

Louis Braille’s father was a leatherer, and a young Louis would play in his father’s workshop. Aged three, he was trying to make holes in leather with an awl, but it slipped and struck him in the eye. The injury, agony and subsequent infection meant he was completely blind by the age of five.

As a teenager, when he was developing his raised-dot system, he used another awl to create the indents in the paper.

A collection of tools with wooden handles and sharp, pointed metal ends.
Shoemaking awls. Photograph by Dominique Grassigli, used under CC BY-SA.

4. Braille isn’t a one-to-one mapping to printed characters.

The most common form of English Braille adds many symbols and markers that don’t map to a printed English character. These include:

I used another special braille character in the title of this post – ⠼ is a number sign. This is a formatting mark that tells a reader that the next characters are numbers, not letters. There are similar characters to mark capitalisation and emphasis.

Formatting marks aren’t required in printed English, because printing allows you to print the characters in different typefaces. Because a six-dot braille cell can only ever have 64 different patterns, it has to find other ways to represent formatting and emphasis.

Braille is a unique system in its own right – it’s not just another a one-to-one mapping of English orthography.

Buttons in a lift with printed numbers and braille inscriptions.
Buttons in a lift: notice how the braille for each button starts with to tell you it's a number. Photograph by Paul Hagon, used under CC BY-NC.

5. Braille isn’t just for English/French.

The six-dot cell design has been used for dozens of other languages and alphabets. It ranges for things quite similar to English/French – such as Dutch Braille, which has similar letter assignments, but replaces y with the vowel ij – to non-Latin scripts like Chinese, Greek and Cyrillic.

A page printed with Finnish words and embossed with braille.
Finnish braille. Photograph by Ms L, used under CC BY-NC-ND.

6. Braille characters are assigned in order – not randomly.

The patterns have a defined order, and characters/marks are assigned to a pattern based on their order. For example, the first pattern is A, the second pattern is B, the third is C, and so on.

The patterns are grouped into decades. In the first four decades, the top two rows always follow a consistent order, and it’s just the bottom row that varies.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 first decade second decade third decade fourth decade Ten six-dot patterns, in which the top two rows are changing but the bottom row is undefined. Below are four six-dot patterns, in which the bottom row is changing but the top two rows are undefined.

This helps you remember the meaning of the patterns (or me, at least). For example, consider ⠗. The bottom row tells us that this character is in the second decade, and the top two rows tell us it’s the eighth character in the decade. The eighteenth letter of the alphabet is R, so this pattern is R.

For more, see Wikipedia.

7. Braille can be used to write music.

Louis Braille was an avid musician, and an accomplished cellist and organist, so he wanted a system that could be used to write music. There have been several systems for writing music with Braille, with some minor differences, but today the Braille music code is mostly standardised. You can use it to express almost anything you can write with standard musical notation.

Unlike printed music, a Braille musician usually has to read and memorise the score – if they read the score with Braille while playing, they’d only have one hand left for the instrument!

A few bars of musical notes with the Braille symbols printed below.
Excerpt from Braille Music Notation (1930), as digitsed for the Internet Archive.

8. Braille can also be used to write maths.

There are many writing systems using the six-dot Braille cell that allow you to write mathematical and scientific notation. Because there are lots of mathematical characters, it requires a lot more context – a single symbol might need lots of Braille patterns to represent. Sort of like the number sign I mentioned above, but longer.

A short mathematical expression with the associated Nemeth Braille.
A mathematical expression and its Nemeth Braille equivalent, one way to write mathematics in Braille.

9. Braille takes up a lot of space.

Compared to a printed alphabet, braille takes up much more space on the page – a single pattern is bigger than a single character, there are extra formatting and punctuation marks, and the spacing is a lot looser.

You think your copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is big? It’s nothing compared to the braille editions, “each of which amounts to a 13-volume stack of paper more than a foot high”.

@wwbookclub @pottermore These are my Braille copies of the Harry Potter books. Four of these volumes make up the Sorcerer's Stone.

10. You can read braille electronically

If you want to read something using braille but you don’t want (or can’t) print it on embossed paper, you can use a braille display. This is an electro-mechanical device that displays braille patterns. It can create a sequence of patterns by raising round-tipped pins for the text you want to read.

You select a line of text to read, and it creates the correct dot patterns. You read the line with your fingers, and when you’re done, you refresh the display and it shows the next line of text.

A purple machine with a sequence of braille characters in raised pins along the front row.
A refreshable braille display, photographed by Sebastien.delorme, CC BY-SA.

11. A bonus copy-editing fact

When I originally wrote this post, I capitalised the name of the system as “Braille”. As I was doing the reading, I learnt that lowercase “braille” is much more common, with a capital letter only if you’re talking about Louis Braille. I think I’ve fixed all the text above, but please let me know if I’ve missed one – or if you think I’ve made any other mistake.