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Tell Me Why: Braille August 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask a simple question: Why are the blind taught to read braille? I found myself wondering about this after reading yesterday’s post by our friend Ben, “Ben Picks Ten: Geniuses,” and a comment on that post suggesting that perhaps Helen Keller should have made Ben’s list.

Pondering the weirdness of braille, it seemed to me that it would be far easier to just read the raised letters of the language one spoke, and that it would be more grounding as far as relating to your native culture, where others read those same letters. Why learn a binary system if you’re not a computer programmer?!

A visit with Wikipedia gave me some fascinating background on braille, which, it turns out, developed from a system created for Napoleon. Napoleon had asked for a form of writing that his soldiers could use to communicate both in complete silence and in darkness. Someone named Charles Barbier had created a proto-braille to satisfy Napoleon’s request.

Not surprisingly, it was rejected as too complex for soldiers to learn. But having gone to the trouble to develop it, Barbier was apparently determined to find someone who’d buy it. In 1821, he hit upon the idea of taking his sales spiel and system to the National Institute for the Blind in Paris, where he finally found a taker in the form of Louis Braille. Braille revised the system into its current form, and the rest is history.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like political influence at its worst to me. Or maybe it’s just that, in 1821, printers couldn’t produce books, newspapers, and the like with raised lettering. So almost two centuries of the visually impaired have been forced to learn a complex, completely artificial system as a result, even though it’s been easy enough to create raised lettering for many a long decade. It’s as though a group of us were cordoned off and forced to speak only Esperanto, that artifical conglomeration of languages created by L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 in a failed attempt at world unification, even though our own languages were easily accessible and used by everyone around us.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, braille is finally falling into disuse, thanks, ironically, to computers, which of course also use a binary system as their modus operandi. I can only say, about time!



1. deb - August 27, 2008

Very interesting stuff.

Napoleon! Who’d have guessed? You just never know what you’ll find!

2. ceecee - August 27, 2008

Honestly, I don’t know where one letter starts and another ends.
Very ironic that one binary system is phasing out another.

I thought so, too, CeeCee! Thanks for provoking this post!

3. Curmudgeon - August 27, 2008

No more weird, complex or completely artificial than any other system! Richard, if you want to do some grassroots research, find your local NFB (National Federation of the Blind) or AFB (American Foundation for the Blind) chapter and talk to them. The last statistics I read on Braille usage said that less than 5% of blind people can read Braille. However, an equally interesting statistic from a study by Blind Inc. found that 93% of blind adults who are employed use Braille. I think this is extremely significant when you consider that only 30% of the blind adult population IS employed.

It is about independence. Your raised letter system would take away a blind person’s ability to write for themselves. A slate & stylus used for writing Braille fit anywhere a pen or pencil will fit–and they’re human powered, no need for electricity, machines, etc. Also, if you think Braille is cumbersome, your system of raised letters would be even more so. Print books are transcribed using Grade 2 Braille–a system that employs contractions. It is the use of these contractions that enables a blind reader to read at speeds equal to or faster than sighted readers. Having to read each and every letter would slow down the process immensely.

Good points, Curmudgeon! I’d read about the use of Grade 2 Braille, but simply thought that was yet another drawback, since people then had to learn two different forms. I (obviously!) wasn’t thinking about speed of reading. I myself am a word-by-word reader, but even I don’t read letter by letter (or at least, not consciously). Thanks for the additional info!

4. Michjo - August 27, 2008

Since you tagged this for Esperanto…

I understand where you’re coming from about Esperanto. However, it turns out that your description of it is actually quite different from how it really is. Please allow me to explain.

Esperanto was indeed created by one person. However – and few people outside the community know this – Zamenhof soon set it free, making it the language of the community of its speakers, with only a small unchangeable core of vocabulary and grammar to assure a measure of stability. From then on, it grew and evolved, trying out and finally adding or rejecting features, and came to be used in all facets of life, becoming second nature to those who learned to speak it. So, while it started out artificial, it became a completely natural language. This is not unlike some languages like Bahasa Indonesia or modern Hebrew, which were created by small numbers of people, tried out, and set free, to become the natural languages they are today.

Esperanto’s roots are indeed drawn from other languages, and the grammar was inspired to a certain degree by observations of other languages. In that respect, it is like most other natural languages – English words are drawn largely from Germanic and Latin stock, and its grammar is mainly Germanic; French, while mostly Latin in origin, is now mutually unintelligible with Latin and other Latin-based languages, having innovated features specific to itself. Yet, English and French do not feel artificial to their native speakers – they just accept these languages as they are, using them without giving any conscious thought to what they’re saying or how they’re saying it. An adult first learning one of these languages would have a very different experience: the language would feel quite artificial, and the learner may even notice the incongruous cohabitation of bits and pieces of dissimilar languages or the departures from their source language(s). That would continue until the language becomes second nature. Similarly, Esperanto may be experienced as artificial at first, but quickly becomes second nature, feeling quite natural.

To the extent that a language – or rather, the community of its speakers – can have an aim, Esperanto does have one, but it is not world unification. The Esperanto community by and large values linguistic and cultural diversity, and wants people to cherish and preserve their languages and cultures. It offers Esperanto as an easy *second* language for all, to keep the cost of communication between people of *different* native languages low and put them on a more equal linguistic footing. While it maintains that free communication is a necessary ingredient to world-wide understanding – not world unification – almost all Esperantists realize that it is far from sufficient. And universal bilingualism is not the only aim Esperantists may have – many speak Esperanto simply because it’s a cool language in its own right, often seeking nothing else for or from it.

It’s really too early to judge if Esperanto has failed. With almost no official help – in fact, in spite of serious persecution at times – it has grown steadily over the 121 years of its existence to around 2,000,000 speakers scattered around the globe. The metric system took much longer than that to catch on; now, it is almost universal. Only the future will tell where Esperanto goes from here, although current trends, in particular the boost it’s getting from the Internet, make its future look promising.

It’s very reasonable to ask why we should add yet another language. For people who already have a common native tongue, Esperantists would agree: by all means, keep it, cherish it, use it with each other. For people who do not speak the same language, however, Esperanto is a much cheaper and fairer alternative. Cheaper, because it is many times easier to learn than any other language, and the total cost of everyone learning Esperanto would be far less than having just some people learn one national language; fairer, because everyone would be speaking it as a second language, and its ease of learning makes it almost universally accessible.

Sorry for the length, but I hope this clarifies a few things. For those with an inclination to look further, a couple of web sites I’d recommend are http://www.esperanto.net (general info) and http://www.lernu.net (how to learn).

This is fascinating, Michjo! Thank you for clearing up a lot of confusion here!

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