What Is Braille?

Braille is Not a Different Language

So, what is braille you ask? Braille is a system of reading and writing in your language without the use of sight and enables people with blindness and visual impairments to read and write. Refined in the late 1800’s by Louis Braille, it was originally developed by a French army captain named Charles Barbier to enable his officers to read battle commands during the night without the aid of candle light. Braille can be transcribed in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and many more languages.

Close up view of Braille with the words "What is Braille?" displayed.

Partly because of the size that braille pages occupy, and partly to improve the speed of writing and reading, the literary braille codes for English and many other languages employ “contractions” that substitute shorter sequences for the full spelling of commonly-occurring letter groups. For example, “the” is usually just one character in braille. When contractions are used, the braille is referred to as “grade 2” in contrast to “grade 1” transcriptions where all words are spelled out letter-for-letter. In other words, grade 2 braille is a shortened form of braille. Instead of having one braille cell corresponding with each letter, grade 2 braille uses one or more cells to correspond with groups of letters or even whole words.

Grade 1 Braille

Grade 1 braille consists of the 26 standard letters of the alphabet and punctuation. It’s mainly used by people who just started reading braille.

Braille Alphabet and Numerals - Created and owned by Braille Works

Grade 2 Braille

Grade 2 braille consists of the 26 standard letters of the alphabet, punctuation and contractions. The contractions are employed to save space because a braille page cannot fit as much text as a standard printed page. Books, public signage, restaurant menus, and most other braille materials are written in Grade 2 braille.

Chart showing Grade 2 Braille words and abbreviations

Grade 3 Braille

Grade 3 is the last form of braille and is used the least in within the blind community. It is considered to be braille “shorthand”, with entire words shortened to only one or just a few letters. Grade 3 braille has never been standardized so it is not used in any official publications. Instead it is most often used only in personal letters, diaries, and notes.

Braille Transcription vs. Braille Translation

Braille transcription is the process of converting printed text to braille. Sometimes people confuse braille transcription with braille translation but this portrays a misleading connotation that braille is a different language rather than merely a different system of reading and writing the same language.

A Closer Analysis of Braille

Each braille character or “cell” is made up of 6 dot positions, arranged in a rectangle comprising 2 columns of 3 dots each. A dot may be raised at any of the 6 positions, or any combination. Counting the space, in which no dots are raised, there are 64 such combinations. For reference purposes, a particular combination may be described by naming the positions where dots are raised; the positions being universally numbered 1 through 3 from top to bottom on the left and 4 through 6 from top to bottom on the right.

Numerical order for the dot positions in a braille cell

For example, dots 1-3-4 would describe a cell with three dots raised, at the top and bottom in the left column and on top of the right column. Because the 64 distinct characters are never enough to cover all possible print signs and their variations, it is necessary to use multi-character sequences for some purposes. Often this is accomplished by using certain characters as “prefixes” or “indicators” that affect the meaning of subsequent cells. For example, a dot 6 before a letter indicates that the letter is a capital, whereas otherwise it is understood to be lower case. For another example, dots 3-4-5-6, called the “numeric indicator”, causes certain following letters (A through J) to be reinterpreted as numerals.

Dot height, cell size and cell spacing are always uniform. Significant characteristics of the text, such as italics used for emphasis, must be handled by indicators in braille. An exception to that formatting, such as the centering of main headings, is commonly used in braille in much the same way and for most of the same purposes as in print.

Separate braille codes may be used for notation systems other than natural languages such as music, mathematics and computer programming.

More Information on Braille

History of Braille

Braille Alphabet