What Is Braille
Pick up most any dictionary and you can find a definition of
braille and a sample of the braille alphabet. Many years ago, a
co-worker of mine wanted to braille a note when I was away from
the office. Following a dictionary description of braille, he
used my Perkins brailler and wrote out the note perfectly in
Grade 1 braille, complete with capitalization. It was pretty impressive!
Despite the many definitions already written, I have prepared yet
one more for this website. I’ve taken the trouble, because this
is a site devoted directly and specifically to braille and to
braille codes in the English-speaking world, the United States in
particular. As such, not only does braille need a definition
tailored to the purpose of this site, but it needs key factors of
braille itself pointed out specifically and unambiguously. So,
here we go!
Basic Definition of Braille
Braille is a system of raised dots displayed in a rectangular
pattern, 2 dots wide, and three dots high. The dots are labeled
vertically from top to bottom, counting first on the left side,
then on the right. Thus, dots on the left side from top to bottom
are 1, 2 and 3. On the right side, they are dots 4, 5 and 6. When
considered horizontally from top to bottom, the dots are 1 and 4,
2 and 5, with 3 and 6 at the bottom of the construct, typically
referred to as a “cell”.
Important Corollary Facts
The available number of possible individual characters based on
this cell construction is quite limited. In all, 64 characters
are possible which includes the space i.e. no dots at all. If
braille used a separate symbol for each uppercase letter, each
lowercase letter, and each of the digits 0-9, that would use up
62 of the 64 possibilities available. Because braille was
invented in France, such a decision would further dictate
two-cell constructs for the French accent letters. So from the
outset, characters, numbers and other symbols had to be consider
carefully and have contended for superior/individual placement
within the symbol set.
Other Types of Cells
After Louis Braille’s system was introduced, many tried to
improve upon its cell construction. American Braille retained the
basic cell structure but made radical changes for the meanings of
the dots within the cell. Another system called New York Point
based its cell on a square made up of only 4 dots. But, this
square could then be elongated horizontally to an infinite degree
with spacing defining the actual end of a character. These codes
were both abandoned in 1932 ending what is often called “the war
of the dots”.
More recently, an 8-dot system of braille has been used in which
dot 7 is placed below dot 3 and dot 8 is placed below dot 6. This
has been used to create a shorthand code and a computer braille
system able to display up to 255 characters.
Character Formation in Braille
With the cell now defined, the next step in the process of
understanding braille is to recognize the methodology of how
symbols are assigned. I am extremely indebted to Pam Lorimer’s
treatment of this topic. “A CRITICAL EVALUATION OF THE
HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE TACTILE MODES OF READING
AND AN ANALYSIS AND EVALUATION OF RESEARCHES
CARRIED OUT IN ENDEAVORS TO MAKE THE BRAILLE CODE EASIER TO READ
AND TO WRITE”, Lorimer, Pamela, University of Birmingham Doctoral
It seems clear that Louis Braille wanted to create a system of
proper symmetry, and a system that minimized confusion to the
reader about what dots were being displayed within a cell. Thus,
the letter **A uses the top left dot in the rectangle, dot 1. There is no letter represented by dot
4, because it could be very problematic to recognize after a
space whether dot 1 or dot 4 was being touched.
Continuing this pattern, **B is made up of dots 1 and 2.
. C is dots 1 and 4. Thus, we move through the
first ten characters of the alphabet.
a b c d e f g h i j
Note that no character or combination of characters solely
existing on the right side of the cell is used for these first
ten characters. Likewise, no character employing only dots 2 or 3
on the left side of the cell is used here either. This, then, is
“Line 1″ of braille as defined by Louis Braille.
Line 2 adds dot 3 to each of the characters formed in Line 1.
k l m n o p q r s t
Similarly, Line 3 adds both dots 3 and 6 to the symbols defined
by line 1. This gives the following:
u v x y z & = ( ! )
Notice the lack of a w. This was, after all, a French code.
Keeping the French language in mind, the symbols after z were
used by Louis Braille to represent the most common accented
letters in French: c cedilla; e acute; a grave, etc.
Line 5 is of particular interest and actually only a little short
of amazing when considered in the context of a unified braille
system. I believe what I’m about to show you here is a
little-known fact both about braille and about Louis Braille’s
perspective on braille. In line 5, the ten original shapes used
in Line 1 are dropped to the lower portion of the cell and
repeated there in the same order as in Line 1. Braille used these
symbols to represent numbers beginning with 1 and ending with 0.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
Louis Braille made a clear decision here that numbers deserved
special treatment in the code. While this decision has been
obscured over time in the development of braille codes,
it is a decision that shows great forethought and an
understanding of the critical role numbers play along with
letters. One of the developers of UEB has been fond of suggesting
UEB’S use of the number sign by observing that if it was good
enough for Louis himself, it ought to be good enough for us
today. It seems though that use of the number sign along with
letters to represent numbers was not good enough for Louis, a
fact which has for too long been conveniently swept under the
rug. (Lorrimer, 1996.)
Perhaps this is also a good place to point out that many voices
have been raised over time advocating the use of these lower
symbols for numbers. This is not simply Abraham Nemeth’s peculiar
idea. Of course, many thought braille itself to be a peculiar
idea though they have been proven wrong. Without going through a
litany of names and places, let me only mention the Hallifax Code
as one other implementation of a system based on the concept of
numbers being shown in the lower part of the cell without the use
of the numeric indicator.
Though I’m really getting ahead of myself just a bit, one final
point is key here. No advanced country has ever, before
today, employed a truly effective technical braille code that does not
assign a specific 1-cell symbol to each number. Simply put,
numbers are just too important not to have their own individual
symbols, particularly when one is writing and reading technical
I refer you to Pam Lorimer’s excellent treatment of the
creation of the remaining braille lines. That explanation goes
well beyond the scope of this article though it makes for some
fascinating reading which I hope you will do some time in the
The bottom line here is that Louis Braille himself recognized the
need to devote ten unique and individual braille symbols in the
braille code to represent numbers. Further, Braille clearly
understood that the need would arise over time for different
codes to represent different disciplines. Just how those
differences play themselves out is a key factor in the
consideration of UEB v. NUBS.
The second code developed by Braille was the music code. This
code differs radically from Braille’s code for representing
general print material. He did not shackle his mind with only the
concepts of the written word when developing the music code. In
fact, he intentionally tried, where possible, to use dots where
patterns would best represent print. Perhaps the best example is
his use of dots 1-4 to represent the tie symbol to tie notes
together . This required him to raise all the musical
notes by one or more characters. For example, the musical note c
is represented by the symbol that a braille reader of text
considers to be a d and so on. The musical notes a and b are
represented by letters i and j in Braille’s music system. This
shows beyond doubt Braille’s willingness to mold each braille
code to its greatest need and highest potential.
Over time, Braille chose to make decisions that would lead us
into what is often called a literary code. This code would appeal
to and attract the greatest number of readers. It would be a
first step in the acceptance of braille as a code. A symbol would
be used as a prefix to letters to show when they are uppercase.
In different implementations of braille, dot 6 and dots 4-6 were
used experimentally. Further, Braille elected for the basic code
to implement a similar representation for numbers, prefixing the
letters a through j with a numeric indicator, dots . This
choice for literary presentation has overshadowed the fact that
Braille himself also recognized the need to show digits as single
cells when presenting mathematics and other scientific
disciplines. Unfortunately, illness and a short life did not
provide him the opportunity to demonstrate such a code to future
developers of braille.
The braille code is a systematic representation of the print
alphabet. Choices must be made and codes written to embrace the
presentation for different disciplines. Three examples of this
are literary, music and mathematics. Though not well-known, Louis
Braille favored and chose to represent digits as single
characters in his original code structure.