Tell Me Why: Braille August 27, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Braille, Esperanto, Napoleon
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!