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International uniformity of braille alphabets

Main article: Braille

The goal of braille uniformity is to unify the braille alphabets of the world as much as possible, so that literacy in one braille alphabet readily transfers to another.[1] Unification was first achieved by a convention of the International Congress on Work for the Blind in 1878, where it was decided to replace the mutually incompatible national conventions of the time with the French values of the basic Latin alphabet, both for languages which use Latin-based alphabets and, through their Latin equivalents, for languages which use other scripts. However, the unification did not address letters beyond these 26, leaving French and German Braille partially incompatible, and as braille spread to new languages with new needs, national conventions again became disparate. A second round of unification was undertaken under the auspices of UNESCO in 1951, setting the foundation for international braille usage today.

Numerical order

File:Final braille.png
An early braille chart, displaying the numeric order of the characters

Braille arranged his characters in decades (groups of ten), and assigned the 25 letters of the French alphabet to them in order. The characters beyond the first 25 are the principal source of variation today.

In first decade, only the top four dots are used; the two supplementary characters have dots only on the right. These patterns are repeated for the second decade, with the addition of a diacritic at dot 3; for the third, at dots 3 and 6; for the fourth, at 6; and for the fifth decade, by duplicating the first decade within the lower four dots.

diacritic    main sequence    suppl.
1st decade
2nd decade
3rd decade
4th decade
5th decade

Unification of 1878

Braille is in its origin a numeric code. Louis Braille applied the characters in numerical order to the French alphabet in alphabetical order. As braille spread to other languages, the numeric order was retained and applied to the local script. Therefore, where the alphabetical order differed from that of French, the new braille alphabet would be incompatible with French Braille. For example, French was based on a 25-letter alphabet without a w. When braille was adopted for English in the United States, the letters were applied directly to the English alphabet, so that braille letter of French x became English w, French y became English x, French z English y, and French ç English z. In the United Kingdom, however, French Braille was adopted without such reordering. Therefore any English book published in braille needed to be typeset separately for the United States and the United Kingdom. Similarly, the letters Egyptian Arabic Braille were assigned their forms based on their nearest French equivalents, so that for example Arabic d had the same braille letters as French d. For Algerian Arabic Braille, however, the braille characters were assigned to the Arabic alphabet according to the Arabic alphabetical order, so that Algerian d was the same character as Egyptian h. Thus an Arabic book published in Algeria was utterly unintelligible to blind Egyptians and vice versa.

In addition, in other alphabets braille characters were assigned to print letters according to frequency, so that the simplest letters would be the most frequent, making the writing of braille significantly more efficient. However, the letter frequencies of German were very different from those of English, so that frequency-based German braille alphabets were utterly alien to readers of frequency-based American Braille, as well as to numerically based German, English, and French Braille.

The 1878 congress, convening representatives from France, Britain, Germany, and Egypt, decided that the original French assignments should be the norm for those countries:

"[Due to] the tendencies in America and Germany to re-arrange the Braille alphabet [to fit their own alphabetical orders], the Congress decided ... that it should be adopted ... with the values of its symbols unaltered from those of the original French."[2]

Gradually the various reordered and frequency-based alphabets fell out of use elsewhere as well.

This decision covered the basic letters of the French alphabet at the time; w had been appended with the extra letters, so the 26 letters of the Basic Latin alphabet are slightly out of numeric order:


For non-Latin scripts, correspondences are generally based, where possible, on their historical connections or phonetic/transcription values.[3] For example, Greek γ gamma is written g, as it is romanized, not c, as it is ordered in the alphabet or as it is related historically to the Latin letter c. Occasional assignments are made on other grounds, such as Greek ω omega, which is written w, as in beta code and internet chat alphabets, due to the graphic resemblance of Latin w and Greek ω.

Basic correspondences

Correspondences among the basic letters of representative modern braille alphabets include:

Letter: (...)
Values French[4] a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v x y z w
Hungarian a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p ö r s t u v x y w
Albanian a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p rr r s t u v x y z
Greek[5] α a β b δ d ε e φ ph γ g χ ch ι i ω ô κ k λ l μ m ν n ο o π p ρ r σ s τ t ου ou ξ ks υ y ζ z
Russian а a б b ц ts д d е e ф f г g х kh и i ж zh к k л l м m н n о o п p ч ch р r с s т t у u щ shch з z в v
Armenian[6] ա a պ p ջ ǰ տ t ֆ f կ k հ h ի i ճ č̣ լ l մ m ն n օ ò բ b գ g ր r ս s թ t’ ը ë վ v խ x ե e զ z ւ w
Hebrew א ʼ בּ b ד d פ f ג g ה h ִי i י y כּ k ל l מ m נ n וֹ o פּ p ק q ר r ס s ט וּ u ב v ח ch ז z ו v
Arabic ا ā ب b د d ـِ i ف f ه h ي ī ج j ك k ل l م m ن n ق q ر r س s ت t ـُ u خ kh ئ ’y ز z و ū
Hindi अ a ब b च ch द d ए ē फ़ f ग g ह h इ i ज j क k ल l म m न n ओ ō प p क्ष kṣ र r स s त t उ u व v ऒ o य y ज़ z ठ ṭh
Tibetan ཨ a བ b ཁ kh ད d ཨེ e ག g ཧ h ཨི i ཡ y ཀ k ར l མ m ན n ཨོ o པ p ཇ j ར r ཟ z ཏ t ཨུ u ཙ ts ཆ ch ཚ tsh ཝ w
Thai[7] ะ a ิ i ุ u ด d -ัว ua เ- e ก k ห h โ- o จ ch ข kh ล l ม m น n อ ∅ ผ ph เ-ือ uea ร r ส s ถ th ค kh บ b ฟ f ย y -ำ am ว w
Chinese 1 b c d ye f g, j h, x yi r k, q l m n wo p ch er s t wu an yang wai z wei

The 1878 congress only succeeded in unifying the basic Latin alphabet. The additional letters of the extended French braille alphabet, such as , are not included in the international standard. The French , for example, corresponds to print ç, whereas the in English and German braille transcribes &, and the in Hungarian and Albanian braille is q.

Alphabets limited to grade-1 braille

Languages that in print are restricted to the letters of the basic Latin script are generally encoded in braille using just the 26 letters of grade-1 braille with their French/English values, and often a subset of those letters. Such languages include:

Bemba, Chewa (Nyanja), Dobuan, Greenlandic,[8] Huli, Indonesian, Luvale, Malagasy, Malaysian, Ndebele, Shona, Swahili,[9] Swazi, Tok Pisin, Tolai (Kuanua), Xhosa, Zulu.[10]

In these languages, print digraphs such as ch are written as digraphs in braille too.

Languages of the Philippines are augmented with the use of the accent point with n, , for ñ. These are Tagalog, Ilocano, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and Bicol; Ethnologue reports a few others.

Languages of Zambia distinguish ñ/ŋ/ng’ [ŋ] from ng [ŋɡ] with an apostrophe, as in Swahili Braille: ng’ vs ng. These are Lozi, Kaonde, Lunda, and Tonga. Ganda (Luganda) may be similar.[11]

Ethnologue 17 reports braille use for Mòoré (in Burkina Faso), Rwanda, Rundi, Zarma (in Niger), and Luba-Sanga, but provides few details.

Congress of 1929

In 1929 in Paris, the American Foundation for Overseas Blind sponsored a conference on harmonizing braille among languages which use the Latin script, which had diverged in the previous decades.

Congresses of 1950–1951

When additional letters are needed for a new braille alphabet, several remedies are used.

  1. They may be borrowed from an existing alphabet; French–German ä, ö, and ü, for example, are widely used where a language had need of a second a-, o-, or u-vowel. Likewise, the values of English contracted ("Grade 2") ch, sh, and th are widely used for similar sounds in other languages.
  2. An otherwise unused letter may be reassigned. For example, Tibetan Braille, which is based on German Braille, reassigns c, q, x, and y, which are redundant in German.
  3. In the case of diacritics in the print alphabet, a point may be added to the base letter in braille. Latvian Braille, for example, adds dot 6 to indicate a diacritic, at the cost of abandoning several international assignments.
  4. New letters may be invented by modifying a similar letter. Modification may be done through moving the letter (thus and for a second e or i vowel), stretching the letter (again, and for e- and i-like vowels), or rotating or reflecting it. The latter is quite common, producing such pairs as s sh and n ny. See Hungarian Braille for an alphabet which has exploited a pattern of mirror images, and Thai Braille for the series b, p, ph1, ph2.

A regional UNESCO conference on braille uniformity for southern Asia took place in 1950.[12] This led to a conference with global scope the following year. The 1951 congress found many conflicting braille assignments:

"Most Asian and African languages contain more letters or sounds than Roman had equivalents for, [and] they had to find some way of representing them. Most of the designers of Braille spoke English and some of them turned to the contractions of English Braille to find signs which would provide precedents for local letter values ... But beyond these again, many non-European alphabets included letters for which no Braille precedent had been created. Arbitrary signs had to be allotted to them, with the consequence that even throughout these traditional Brailles only limited uniformity was achieved."[13]

The congress recognized the role of English contracted braille in establishing a partial international standard, and recommended that alphabets follow existing conventions as much as possible.

Common extended correspondences

The following assignments include common secondary vowels and consonants: Whenever a second a- or d-based letter is needed in an alphabet, use of the same secondary braille letter is common. Additional alternative letters are used in some braille alphabets. English grade 2 braille correspondences are given below for recognition; these are often the basis of international usage.

Letter Braille Extended use Notes
A 40px Arabic alif
long A 40px Indic Ā
Arabic Ā
Scandinavian Æ
English ar
E 40px
2nd E 40px Indic Ĕ
African , Ɛ
English en
I 40px
2nd I 40px Indic Ī
English in
Vowels (cont.)
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
long I (ai) 40px Indic AI
O 40px
2nd O 40px French Œ
German Ö
Indic AU
African , Ɔ
English ow
U 40px
2nd U 40px German Ü
Indic Ū
English ou
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
P 40px
B 40px
T 40px
2nd T 40px Indic
English with
D 40px
2nd D 40px Indic
African Ɖ
English ed
C 40px
CH 40px Indic CH
English ch
Occlusives (cont.)
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
J 40px
K 40px
G 40px
Q 40px Arabic Q
African KW
also Indic KṢ
apostrophe 40px English apostrophe used for Arabic ء
M 40px
N 40px
NG 40px African Ŋ
Indic Ṅ
English ing
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
F 40px
V 40px
TH 40px Indic TH
Arabic Θ
English th
Icelandic Þ
DH 40px Indic DH
Arabic/Icelandic Ð
English the
S 40px
2nd S 40px French Ç
Indic Ṣ
Arabic Ṣ
English and
Z 40px
Fricatives (cont.)
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
SH 40px Indic Ś
Arabic Š,
African , Ʃ
English sh
ZH 40px Indic JH English was
X 40px /x/ or /ks/
Arabic X
GH 40px Indic GH
African Ɣ
Arabic Ɣ
English gh
H 40px
2nd H 40px Arabic Ħ
English wh
German SCH
Chinese SH
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
L 40px
2nd L 40px Indic Ḷ
English world
R 40px
2nd R 40px Indic Ṛ or Ṟ
English er
African / Ɛ
Y 40px
W 40px
Additional consonants[14]
Letter Braille Extended use Notes
Dh 40px Indic ḌH
Arabic Ẓ
2nd Dh braille pattern
English for
B 40px African Ɓ, GB
English bb
2nd B braille pattern
K 40px African Ƙ
Indic KH
German "ck"
2nd K braille pattern
English ance
ayin 40px Arabic ʿ
French "à"
English of

External links


  1. ^ "International Meeting on Braille Uniformity" (PDF). UNESCO. 1953. Retrieved 2012-04-24. 
  2. ^ Unesco, 1953, p 25
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Also English, German, Yugoslavian, Vietnamese, and many others
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^ Western Armenian b d ǰ g and p t č̣ k are pronounced like English p t ch k and b d j g, and largely use the equivalent braille letters.
  7. ^ Only the consonants follow international braille. Vowels follow Japanese braille.
  8. ^ Greenlandic Braille also recognizes the additional letters of Danish Braille, found in loan words or proper names.
  9. ^ Swahili also uses the apostrophe in ng’.
  10. ^ World Braille Usage, UNESCO, 2013
    All of these alphabets use traditional English Braille punctuation and formatting, except for Greenlandic, which follows Danish Braille conventions.
  11. ^ Unesco (2013) claims Ganda Braille has a different point for ŋ, , but that would make it a homograph with nga. It may thus be a copy error for the apostrophe used in Swahili and Zambia.
  12. ^ [3]
  13. ^ Unesco, 1953, pp 27–28
  14. ^ These letters are used in alphabets that were not included in the 1953 Unesco World Braille charts; however, they have cross-linguistic consistency, often including an associated IPA braille value.