Finger food for thought

A couple of years back, I posted some thoughts about learning Braille on the Wordwizard Clubhouse. I have resurrected them here and updated the post a little.

Please note that some browsers may not display the Braille symbols properly.


Well, I have managed it! An exciting, bewildering, bizarre, although as yet incomplete journey.

After just under 7 weeks, I have just completed the final book of my Braille course! I can now read again, albeit extremely laboriously. But what an odd experience it has been.

In this post, I shall just touch on some of the peculiarities that I have encountered, particularly from the perspective of a linguist. In another post on the main board, I shall be going into a little more detail about some of the pitfalls and problems I have had for the benefit of anyone who may be thinking of learning Braille themselves. This one is strictly for the language geeks.

A little bit of background so that you don’t get too lost:

Although there is a variant with 8 dots per cell, ordinary Braille, and in particular the new Unified English Braille, is made up of cells of six raised dots. The dots in a Braille cell are arranged in two columns of three dots, thus: ⠿. The dots are numbered 1-3 down the left column and 4-6 down the right column, so any Braille cell can be referenced by its dot numbers. Thus, (dots 2345) appears like this: ⠞ (which is the t – unless it is something else, of which more later!).

Any mathematicians and computer geeks among you may already be working it out. The Braille alphabet has 64 symbols (or 63 symbols plus the space). It uses those 64 (2^6) symbols, or cells, to represent anything and everything that can be represented in print: letters, numbers, punctuation marks, arithmetical signs, currency signs, accents, typeface, … Which means that many of the symbols have to work very hard, and have different meanings depending on context and so on.

Beyond that, you should know that there are two different forms of Braille. Since the advent of Unified English Braille a couple of years ago, these have been known as uncontracted Braille and contracted Braille. Before that, they were known as Grade 1 and Grade 2 Braille. Uncontracted Braille essentially represents each letter of the alphabet, digit, punctuation mark and so on using a single Braille cell or, in some circumstances, a composite Braille cell. This form of Braille is found on medicine packages and some food packaging, on lift buttons, ATMs and so on. Anybody who can read contracted Braille can also read uncontracted Braille, but not vice versa. Very few people use uncontracted Braille for reading or communication. Most Braille readers, in particular those who learn it at a young age, read contracted Braille, as it is far faster and takes up around one third less space. All my comments below refer to contracted Braille, in particular because that is where most of the difficulties lie.

It took me around a week to learn the Braille alphabet and read simple sentences with minimal punctuation. After all, it is just a question of learning 30 or so shapes. Yes, this was my first “aha” moment: You do not recognize dots; you recognize shapes. Thus, for instance, (dots 123) ⠇- the letter “l” – feels rather like a solid vertical bar rather than three dots.

But what about these contractions? And how does Braille represent all the wealth of printed material with just 64 symbols? As I said, it makes the symbols work very hard indeed.

Let’s take the simple example of the letter “c” ⠉ (dots 14). If you put the capital indicator ⠠ (dot 6) in front of it, it rather unsurprisingly, becomes a capital C ⠠⠉. If you put the number indicator ⠼ (dots 3456) in front of it, it becomes the digit 3 ⠼⠉. If it stands “on its own” in a phrase, it stands for the word “can”, thus: ⠠⠊⠀⠉⠀⠏⠇⠁⠽⠀⠋⠕⠕⠞⠃⠁⠇⠇⠲ ([CAP]I [CAN] play football[FULL STOP]). And there are a few other occurrences as well!

Pretty well every symbol in Braille has multiple meanings in this way. When I first started encountering them, my brain began giving me divide-by-zero errors, but I was surprised at how quickly I began to read the symbols in context.

To get the simple stuff out of the way, contracted Braille makes use of around 70 short forms, which most people would understand as abbreviations. Thus, ⠁⠃ (ab) stands for “about”, ⠁⠃⠧ (abv) stands for “above” and ⠙⠉⠧ (dcv) stands for “deceive”. All these are pretty intuitive and can only be used when they stand on their own and, occasionally, when they have letters added to them, e.g. ⠁⠉ (ac) stands for “according” and ⠁⠉⠇⠽ (acly) therefore stands for “accordingly”.

Hey, I thought, I’m getting the hang of this pretty quickly. Then came the contractions, as opposed to the single-letter short forms (c = can) and multiple-letter short forms (bc = because). Contractions are an entirely different animal. Like shorthand, Braille uses single symbols to represent clusters of letters (I choose my words with care). Thus, for example, ⠡ (dots 16) represents the cluster “ch”, as in ⠡⠥⠗⠡ ([CH]ur[CH]). So far so good. Until you come across ⠑⠡⠕ (e[CH]o). Perhaps because I am a linguist, this pains me to the bottom of my scrotum. The cell (dots 26) does not stand for the phoneme “tsch”. It stands for the letter combination “ch”. I spent ages muttering “etscho” and “stscho-ol” to myself before I sussed “echo” and “school”. But have courage, my friends. It gets worse. Far worse.

Some of these letter clusters are the ones most linguists would identify. Things like “wh” or “ou”, or “gh”, or “ing”. Indeed, on reflection, they are all pretty handy. But let’s take a look at a couple.

⠬ (dots 346) is the cluster “ing”. So we have ⠏⠇⠁⠽⠬ (play[ING]), which makes sense. But we also have ⠗⠬ (r[ING]), which is a little odd, particularly in the word ⠗⠬⠬ (r[ING][ING]). Even more odd is the appearance of the symbol in ⠞⠬⠇⠑ (t[ING]le). Slap-in-the-face-for-a-linguist number two. Not only are contractions not phonemes, they are not morphemes either.

But courage, my friends. It gets worse.

These single-cell contractions can also be short forms. Thus
⠹ (dots 1456) is the contraction “th” as in ⠹⠬ ([TH][ING]). But, standing on its own, it also means “this”, hence ⠹⠀⠹⠔⠀⠹⠬ ([THIS] [TH][IN ][TH][ING])
⠮ (dots 2346) is the contraction “the” and the short form “the”. Let’s savour that one: ⠮⠀⠇⠊⠮⠀⠮⠁⠞⠗⠑⠀⠍⠁⠝⠁⠛⠻ ([THE] li[THE] [THE]atre manag[ER]). Ouch!
A couple more just for fun:
⠺⠊⠮⠗⠬ (wi[THE]r[ING])
⠝⠑⠫⠫ (ne[ED][ED])
Yes, spell that last one out in your head as your fingers would come across the symbols: “nuh-eh-ed-ed”. The symbols are letter clusters, not phonemes or morphemes, stoopid!

And to cap it all (courage, friends), there are another bunch of contractions. They are symbols that are preceded by a composition sign. There are all sorts of rules about exactly where these contractions can be used, but here are a few just for fun. The composition signs all have one thing in common. Like the capital indicator we saw above, they only use one or more of dots 4, 5 and 6. This makes them appear to cling to the next cell, so when you begin to read at any speed, they do not really feel like separate symbols. I like to think of the composition signs as the SHIFT, CTRL and ALT keys on a keyboard. Type “c” and it means “c”. Type SHIFT+c and it means “C”. Type CTRL+c and it (usually) means “copy” and so on. The composition signs change the meaning of the next symbol. Completely. Apparently randomly until you get a few glimmerings of method in the madness.

Here are just a few examples, some straightforward, some bizarre:

⠰⠞ (dot 56 + t) = “ment” as in ⠛⠕⠧⠻⠝⠰⠞ (gov[ER]n[MENT]). This is a final contraction and can only be used at the end of a word, so⠀⠍⠢⠞⠁⠇ = “m[EN]tal”.
⠨⠙ (dots 36 + d) = “ound” as in ⠎⠨⠙ (s[[OUND])
⠐⠙ (dot 5 + d) = “day” as in⠠⠎⠁⠞⠥⠗⠐⠙ ([CAPITAL INDICATOR]satur[DAY]), but also ⠐⠙⠇⠊⠣⠞ ([DAY]li[GH]t). Dot-5 contractions are all short forms and can also be used anywhere in other words.
⠐⠎ (dot 5 + s) = “some”.⠐⠞ (dot 5 + t) = “time”. Hence ⠐⠎⠐⠞⠎ ([SOME][TIME]s).

To round off this quick tour of the vagaries of Braille and before I mention another bizarre problem I have, here is one of the practice sentences from the last book:

⠌⠁⠰⠝⠀⠔⠀⠇⠊⠋⠑⠲⠀8. Between you and me, I rather think his Lordship perceives us as being quite beneath his station in life.[NUMBER INDICATOR]h[FULL STOP] [CAPITAL INDICATOR]bt y [AND] me[COMMA] [CAPITAL INDICATOR]i r [TH][IN]k [HIS] [CAPITAL INDICATOR][dot 5 + l = lord][SH]ip p[ER]cvs u z be[ING] q bn [HIS] [ST]a[[dots56 + n = tion] [IN] life[FULL STOP]

Yes, it was designed to use as many abbreviations as possible, but it gives an idea of the cognitive activity that goes on when reading contracted Braille.

But I promised you another bizarre problem.

For as long as I can remember, I have been able to read at any orientation and mirrored equally as fluently. When I see a word in isolation, I cannot say whether it is upside down or in mirror writing. At least that was so when I could see print. I have pushed glass doors that have the word “PUSH” on the other side, completely missing the word “PULL” on this side. When I was teaching, I used to sit on the teacher’s desk and read poetry from the upside-down book of the student in front of me and they all thought I knew it by heart. I was told off by my primary school teachers for reading books upside down, but I suspect that I was simply unaware. Okay, I might have been showing off. But the point remains. I seem to have an odd spatial awareness when it comes to reading.

And I now find that I have a similar problem with Braille.

Take the letters ⠙ ⠋ ⠓ ⠚ (d f h j), which are all the same shape in different orientations. I have terrible problems keeping these apart. Or the symbols ⠝ ⠵ ⠮ ⠫ (n z [THE] [ED]. They are all the same symbol, either rotated or mirrored or both. I find it really peculiar that I also seem to have a similar spatial (un)awareness with Braille as I did with print. Generally, I correct myself by context when I confuse one of these, so I guess that I will gradually get them all sorted out. But here comes the odd thing. I cannot read left-handed. Then, all the signs really are the wrong way round! Take, as a random example, the letter ⠗ (r). Reading with my right forefinger, the bar hits the inside of my finger first, followed by the dot. Reading with my left hand, the bar hits the outside of my forefinger first, followed by a dot. It appears to me as a ⠺ (w). Now that really is odd! Perhaps I can train my left hand as well. I will need it to read at any useful speed.

Which brings me to my last point (I promise). The average reading speed for printed material across the population is generally reckoned to be around 200 – 250 words per minute. People read aloud at around 150 – 180 wpm and fast readers will read at speeds of 400 wpm and more with no loss of comprehension or long-term retention.

Good Braille readers rarely exceed 200 wpm, although speeds in excess of 300 wpm have been observed. The most that most Braille readers manage only just allows them to read aloud confidently. And me? After 7 weeks. Ah, well, er… How about 30 wpm on an unseen passage and a little faster on a passage from a couple of weeks ago.

I have a long way to go!

I do hope that I haven’t bored you [SH]it[dots 46 + s = less] and that you have gained an insight into a very odd world of orthography. Nothing in Braille is spelled differently from English, whether it be UK, US, Australian or Indian. If it is spelled “color” in print, it is spelled “color” in Braille. The contractions are not phonemes, morphemes or syllables. They are letter clusters.

And in case you were wondering, the sum total of all the short forms and contractions is something in the region of a couple of hundred. Plus a whole bunch of special composite symbols for things like equals, @, ®, bold face on, bold face off, and so on. Then there is technical Braille. And music Braille…

All that was written back in August 2015. In the Autumn of that year, I decided to tackle a real piece of reading. I thought it would make sense to read something I knew really well, so I got hold of a copy of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I have read it so many times, I can almost quote it if I get the first few words of any sentence. And I would not get too impatient to get to the end of it, as I knew it already.

I was aware that the book was in British Braille, not the Unified English Braille that I have learned, but I had read up about the differences and expected to pick them up pretty quickly. And indeed, the old contractions (there are seven of them) that are no longer used came pretty quickly, and the old, rather nonsensical, spacing rules are gradually sinking in (a bunch of single-letter, whole-word contractions – “to”, “of”, “for”, and a few others are written without a space tothe next word). It really did surprise me how easily this was all assimilated. Context resolves the vast majority of it.

But the thing that really blows me away is that the entire thing is written without a single capital letter. Not at the beginning of a sentence, not for proper names. Nothing.

For ten minutes, it really caused me difficulties. Reading the word arthur forced me to go back and read it again, as I assumed I had missed something. And I can’t use the capital sign to find the beginning of a sentence if I lose the thread. Okay, it only took about ten minutes, but it is still odd to me. On the other hand, when you stop expecting it, it is fine. The reality is, we don’t actually need capital letters to write English. They are a convention. Nothing more.

One of the aims of UEB was to ensure that Braille could be transcribed to and from print with no loss, so these odd spacing rules and the capitalization conventions that were established in British Braille (and American Braille) were dropped, allowing reliable automated transcription.

I used to read the whole of Hitchhiker’s in one session in the bath when I could see. It took me a good few weeks to read it in Braille. But I did it. And I enjoyed it. Reading far slower meant that I picked up on some aspects of Adams’ style that I had never really registered before.

And then?

Well, the reality is that I had largely given up reading fiction quite a long time before I lost my sight. The sorts of books I used to read (mostly linguistics, politics and history) simply aren’t available in Braille. I bought a poetry anthology, but found that I was reading it more as an exercise in reading Braille rather than for any real enjoyment. And gradually, I read less and less. And as a consequence, I read slower and slower. Nowadays, I will take something with me on the very rare occasions that I take a long train journey, but that’s about it.

Even national newspapers or weekly or monthly publications are generally no longer available in Braille, and the libraries in the UK neither keep nor order Braille books. They can only be had from the RNIB. Sadly, young people with visual impairments are increasingly less fluent in Braille than they used to be and rely on their computers or smartphones to speak to them (which is how I continue to work and read things of interest on the Web), but many things are closed to them. And a synthesized voice does not do a great deal to help the imagination!

If I need or wish to read Braille, I can pick something up and be reading reasonably fluently within an hour or so, and I am glad that I can. But, sadly, I suspect that it is a skill that I will not use very often.

2 thoughts on “Finger food for thought

  1. Fewer books in Braille saddens me just as the loss of any printed books saddens me. I am 61 years old and have been an avid reader since age 3 1/2. No matter how many books are available in electronic form, I continue to add to our home library. Some day, when I die, whoever goes through it all will think “what a crazy old lady!.

  2. Yes, as I recently wrote elsewhere, I am currently working through many of my mother’s possessions in her old flat now that she has moved to a care home near me. The value of books as treasured possessions has long since gone. And I have found myself throwing out things that I would never have imagined only a few years ago, including many books.

    But I could not bear to part with the family custard jug that I remember from my childhood…

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