Introduction to Tactile Alphabets. The Invention, Development and Structure of Braille

Hausarbeit, 2012

26 Seiten, Note: 1,7




1. Introduction to Tactile Alphabets
1.1 Systems Based on Embossed Roman Letters
1.2 Systems Based on Arbitrary Symbols

2. The Invention and Development of Braille
2.1 The Life of Louis Braille and His Revolutionary Invention
2.2 The Origin of Braille: Night Writing

3. The Structure of Braille
3.1 The Structure of American English Braille
3.2 The Difference between Grade 1 Braille and Grade 2 Braille
3.3 Braille Variations: How to Deal with Different Language Structures?
3.3.1 Unified English Braille Code


Internet Resources:


Braille is a writing system that is mostly used by blind people or people who suffer from significant vision loss. However, individuals who are not visually impaired can also read it by using their eyesight. A special feature about Braille is that it can be read by using just one’s finger tips. This term paper focuses mainly on the characteristics of Braille which are relevant from a linguistic point of view, but also discusses historical events of how Louis Braille invented the aforesaid writing system, as well as how the aforesaid writing system evolved over the past 187 years. It must also be said that this term paper focuses mainly on American English Braille (AEB), because this particular writing system is widely used, well documented, and has evolved faster than any other tactile writing system.[1] However, other types of Braille are occasionally mentioned in this paper, too.

The first chapter deals with tactile alphabets in general. Since Braille is just one type of many existing tactile alphabets, this chapter clarifies its definition and variations. There are two different types of tactile alphabets. One is based on embossed Roman letters, and the second type of tactile alphabet is based on arbitrary symbols. Each type is further explained in a subchapter. The second chapter is about the invention and development of Braille. This chapter focuses, among other things, on the life of Braille, how he became blind and created his own writing system that evolved to be the most important reading and writing tool to many blind communities all over the world. In subchapter 2.2, it is also explained how Braille derived from an already existing tactile alphabet called night writing, and how this aforesaid writing system is structured.

The third chapter discusses linguistic features and structures of Braille. The arrangement of AEB is discussed, as well as the difference between Grade 1 Braille and Grade 2 Braille. Moreover, the third chapter discusses how Braille can be used alternatively for all other writing systems, which, among other things, do not resemble the Latin alphabet, and how that leads eventually to different variations of Braille. Finally, the Unified English Braille (UEB) code is also included as a topic in the third chapter. The aforesaid chapter is followed by a conclusion, a list of references and a declaration of authenticity.

1. Introduction to Tactile Alphabets

1.1 Systems Based on Embossed Roman Letters

Writing systems have existed and evolved for approximately 3,000 years (Jean, 1992, p. 51). The majority of them have been written in a way that one needs their sense of vision to be able to read them. However, tactile writing systems, which can also be read by blind individuals, have been developed quite late in the history of humankind. The earliest documentation of any kind of a tactile reading system is merely 200 years old, and a tactile writing system did not evolve until 1821 (Lorimer, 1996, p.4). The reason for this late development might have been caused by various problems: lack of interest, as well as lack of technological tools.

Pamela Lorimer explains in Reading by Touch- Trials, Battles, and Discoveries: “Because blind people often appeared helpless it was not realised that the remaining senses could be trained. (…) In a sighted world it seems that the blind must adapt in order to be accepted, but for progress to be made those with sight have their part to play too (…)”.[2] Since the approach of society has started to change towards people with visual impairment, the awareness of their necessities to express themselves in written form has increasingly become stronger. Eventually, several tactile writing systems were created in order that blind and visually impaired individuals could read and write too. There are two different types of tactile writing. One type works with embossed Roman letters (see Picture 1). Thus, it applies the Latin alphabet in an embossed form. The other writing type is based on arbitrary symbols, which in most cases are also based on the Latin alphabet (See chapter 1.2 for further information).

In Picture 1 one sees four different types of tactile writing that are all based on the Latin alphabet. This means that all four of them use a glottographic system. To be more precise, the writing systems in Picture 1 are phonographic. The depicted writing systems are “Haüy”, “Gall”, “Howe” and “Moon”. These alphabets have also in common that all of them use a system that consists of cenemic signs, each of which represents a speech sound (Coulmas, 1989, p. 175).The given term, cenemic writing, defines writing systems whose units denote meaningless sounds, thus discriminative elements, such as, for instance, phonemes and syllables. In contrast to that, pleremic writing systems consist of units that operate on a level of meaningful linguistic entities. This means that they are comprised of semantic elements, such as, for example, lexemes and morphemes (Coulmas, 1992, pp. 253-257).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Picture 1. Writing systems based on embossed Roman letters.[3]

Gall’s alphabet, which is also known as “triangular alphabet”, was created by James Gall in the early nineteenth century and it possesses twenty-six symbols. For his tactile alphabet, Gall modified Roman letters regarding their form to make tactile reading easier and more convenient. Although the aforesaid alphabet seems to be quite abstract, similarities with Roman letters remain nonetheless recognizable (Lorimer, 1996, p. 104). The Moon alphabet was created by William Moon in the late nineteenth century. Moon used also Latin alphabetical elements, but tried to simplify them as much as possible to provide the visually impaired reader with an even simpler and more efficient working tool than the alphabet created by Gall (Lorimer, 1996, p. 111). The Moon alphabet is a rather special case, because it is as a mixed system. It is classified as such, because it contains units of the Latin alphabet, as well as other cenemic signs that Moon created himself. Those additional signs did not derive from another writing system. Regarding the shape of its letters, the Moon alphabet consists of eight unaltered Roman letters, eleven simplified Roman letters, two abstracted Roman letters, and five symbols that do not resemble Roman letters at all (Lorimer; 1996, p. 112).

The most noted tactile writing system that works with embossed Roman letters, the Haüy alphabet, was also created in the early nineteenth century. Like the previously mentioned writing systems, this one was also named after its creator, Valentin Haüy. Haüy was founder of the Royal Institution for the Young Blind in Paris, the first school for the blind (Lorimer, 1996, p. 6). When he first began teaching, he used letters cut in wood. Students were supposed to read by tracing the forms of the letters. Naturally, this technique could not be applied to writing, unless the writer was sighted. Tracing the shape of each letter became a challenge when the aforesaid letters were sunk or made hollow. Moreover, Haüy’s technique required a new tablet for each page. All in all, that technique, which Haüy firstly used for teaching blind students to read, was neither very successful nor handy (Lorimer, 1996, p. 9).

Subsequently, Haüy refined his technique. After acknowledging that his previous method did not work very well, he no longer used wooden characters, but thick paper and a quill pen to trace the letter on it (See Picture 1). This was the beginning of reading and writing in relief. For his new writing system, Haüy adapted lower and upper case script, for he believed it to facilitate the teaching of writing. Furthermore, letters with embossed shapes were reduced to a simpler form and made larger in size so they could easily be traced by fingers (Lorimer, 1996, p. 14). Nonetheless, the described technique remained difficult to be learned by blind students, because Haüy wrongly assumed that letters that are easily captured by the eye can also be easily traced by the fingers. However, even with all those difficulties, Haüy has nevertheless a great significance for the history of education for the blind, because he is considered to be the first educator of the blind (Mellor, 2006, p. 39).

1.2 Systems Based on Arbitrary Symbols

Not all tactile writing systems consist of embossed Roman letters. Some of them use different cenemic and pleremic signs, such as, for instance, the writing systems Braille, Frere, and Wait. As mentioned before, most of the existing tactile writing systems work on the basis of the Latin alphabet. This means that those tactile writing systems rather rely on written language than on spoken language (see chapter 3.3). The Frere alphabet (see Picture 2), however, is a tactile writing system that relies on a phonetic system.[4] In other words, it is a set of graphic signs corresponding to phonemic units which can be used to encode utterances through regular rules of sign combination (Sampson, 1985, p. 29).

The Frere writing system was created by James Hatley Frere in the nineteenth century. Frere was an English writer who created an arbitrary code that is, like most tactile writing systems, embossed. He created a sign for each of the twenty-six sounds that exist in the phonetic system upon which he based his writing system (Lorimer, 1996, p. 106). Some signs consist of hooked lines, straight lines, as well as circles and curves. A further feature of his writing system is that it is written in a boustrophedon style, which means that texts written in this manner are bi-directional. The advantage of this method is that it saves reading time, because one does not need to retrace back to the beginning of the next line. On the other hand, the aforesaid system was said to inhibit pronunciation. The Frere writing system never gained greater acceptance, and did not spread widely.[5]

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Picture 2. Frere’s writing system for the blind.[6]

Unlike the Frere system, the Wait alphabet was created, like several other tactile writing systems, in the nineteenth century. It is also known as “New York Point”, and works with embossed dot combinations. Although the aforesaid writing system is based on the Latin alphabet, it works with different segments. Its inventor, William Bell Wait, was an American teacher who worked in the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, and who became its director in 1863. Wait believed that embossed Roman letters, such as, for instance, used in the Haüy alphabet, were not the most effective tool to teach blind students (Lorimer, 1996, p. 139). Therefore, he created his own writing system, which, concerning its form, has similarities with Braille (see Picture 3). However, Wait did not use or teach Braille in school, because he thought that it was not an efficient writing system. He believed the New York Point system to be constructed in a more logical manner than Braille. In Wait’s view, Braille was wasteful of space (Lorimer, 1996, p. 140).

Wait’s alphabet code consists of twenty-six capitals, twenty-six small letters, numerals and punctuation marks. Furthermore, it consists of segmental chains, like diphthongs and triphthongs, and includes syllabic units as well as logographic units (American Foundation for the Blind, 1914, p. 66). This means that the Wait alphabet is, like Braille (see chapter 3), a mixed system with different glottographic features. Wait believed that the number of points to be assigned to represent sounds or letters should be administered by the frequency of letters and sounds, respectively, as they occurred in general use. First, he designed a writing form that worked with six dots in a vertical rectangle. However, this form was too large to be read properly. Thus, Wait refined his dot code to consist only of vertical rectangles with four dots in it[7] (see Picture 3). The four dot form can provide two vertically positioned dots and four horizontally positioned dots (Lorimer; 1996, p. 141).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Picture 3. Writing systems based on arbitrary symbols.[8]


[1] (8th August, 2012)

[2] Lorimer, 1996, p.4

[3] (8th August, 2012)

[4] Frere’s phonetic system was based on Thomas Gurney’s shorthand for adults and children.

[5] Lorimer, 1996, p. 106

[6] (8th August, 2012)

[7] (9th August, 2012)

[8] (9th August, 2012)

Ende der Leseprobe aus 26 Seiten


Introduction to Tactile Alphabets. The Invention, Development and Structure of Braille
Universität Bremen  (Fachbereich Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaften)
Schriftsysteme- Typologie und Geschichte
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
1062 KB
Braille, Tactile, Alphabets, Linguistic
Arbeit zitieren
Yasmin Barrachini-Haß (Autor:in), 2012, Introduction to Tactile Alphabets. The Invention, Development and Structure of Braille, München, GRIN Verlag,


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