The First Publication of the Braille Code:
Louis Braille's 1829
Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots

INTRODUCTION

by Edward T. Morman, MSLS, PhD
Director, Jacobus tenBroek Library
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute

In 1829, Louis Braille first published the raised-dot code that would revolutionize the lives of blind people. With this electronic publication, the National Federation of the Blind is pleased to present Braille's book in a format readily accessible to the blind.

At the bottom of this page you will find links to photographs of each page of the book, accompanied by an accessible transcription of that page, and an accessible translation into English. You may also read the entire book straight through in plain text, either as a transcription of the original French text or a translation into English.

THE GENESIS OF THE BRAILLE CODE

Braille encountered tactile writing in 1819 soon after he enrolled as a student at the Institution for Blind Youth. For decades the Paris school had been trying to teach the blind to read using embossed Roman-alphabet letters based on those developed by its sighted founder, the philanthropist Valentin Haüy. Braille, a particularly bright and hard working ten-year-old, was better able than most of his schoolmates to master this awkward system, but it was evident to him that blind people could never hope to use it as efficiently as sighted people used print.

It was fortunate, then, that Captain Charles Barbier chose to visit the Institution in 1820. Having devised a system of "night writing" with raised dots for use in the army, and having failed to convince the military authorities of its usefulness, Barbier approached the director of the school to see if it might stir some interest among the blind. A Barbier cell consisted of two columns and six rows, and—rather than representing letters of the alphabet—this code was phonetic, with each combination of dots representing a sound in the French language. As Braille himself explained, it was Barbier's system that inspired him to experiment with combinations of raised dots as a reading and writing system for the blind.

Louis Braille was a compulsive and bookish adolescent. Recollections of his early years in Paris published by friends after his death describe him as obsessively trying to come up with a workable writing system that was less cumbersome than Barbier's and could easily be transcribed back and forth from printed words.

Braille's fellow students appreciated Braille's code greatly, but there were periods when the Institution's director stood in the way of this brilliant innovation. At times students had to practice the Braille system surreptitiously because the administration would destroy anything written in Braille. Meanwhile officials of the national department of education remained skeptical of a writing system for the blind that did not closely resemble the letterforms used by the sighted.

In 1854, two years after Braille's death from tuberculosis, the French educational authorities adopted his system. This official Braille code was based on Braille's publication of 1837, in which the six-dot code accounted for all letters, numbers, and punctuation signs. Braille, however, had almost perfected his system by 1829 when he published the book, Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots. In the 1829 book, Braille described every one of the symbols used today for all twenty-six letters of the alphabet.

The Jacobus tenBroek Library of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute was fortunate in securing a copy of the 1829 publication for the March 26, 2009 launch of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. The item's owner, rare book dealer Jonathan Hill of New York City, lent us the book and graciously gave us permission to photograph it. The letters are raised on both sides of each leaf, suggesting that the leaves actually consist of two sheets of thick paper firmly glued together back-to-back. NFB staff took the pictures, making sure that the lighting provided maximum contrast for the embossed letters.

Now for the first time ever, the text of the earliest publication of Braille's code, in his own words, is fully available in digital form. Here you will find images of the half-title page, the title page, three unnumbered prefatory pages, and the thirty-two numbered pages of the book. With each photograph is a transcription of the page; for those who do not read French, we also include a page-by-page translation.

The Institution for Blind Youth published this book; it therefore appears to have been intended as a manual for use in learning the Braille system. Braille understood the difficulty his schoolmates would face struggling through raised alphabet letters in the textual description of his symbols. He therefore included several graphics that showed the Braille signs and the letters, numbers, punctuation symbols, etc. to which they corresponded.

We have not attempted to reproduce the graphics in the transcription or translation. They appear only in the photographs. The text itself (in both French and English) is fully accessible in HTML. In the text, Braille does describe each of the symbols.

THE BRAILLE CODE OF 1829

This work includes the Braille signs that correspond to the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet and is therefore the earliest publication of the Braille alphabet as we know it. Braille, however, had not quite perfected the code by 1829; readers will discover that he experimented with dashes as well as dots. Readers may also be surprised to find that Braille devoted much of the book to the code for religious music—as much as he did describing the letters of the Braille alphabet. We should keep in mind that Braille was a serious musician and a devout Roman Catholic.

With these facts in mind, let us look at the structure of Braille's 1829 Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots.

The book opens with a preface in which Braille credits Captain Barbier for inventing tactile writing with dots. The problems with Barbier's system, according to Braille, were that it took up too much space while not including a sufficient number of signs for all the letters, digits, punctuation signs, etc. The main portion of the book, "Dotted Writing for the Use of the Blind," is an explanation of how Braille intended to rectify these deficiencies.

Modern Braille readers think of the dots as numbered one through six. To make sense of Braille's 1829 publication, though, we must realize that he did not describe the dots in this way. Rather, he thought of the ten fundamental signs of the first series as composed of only the top two rows (what we call dots 1, 2, 4, and 5). After describing these fundamental signs (which we recognize as the letters a through j), Braille tells us that eight additional series can be created by adding one or two dots, or a dash, to the ten fundamental signs.

The second series is very familiar to modern Braille readers. It consists of the ten fundamental signs with an additional dot at the bottom of the first column (dot 3), which we recognize as the letters k through t. Half of the third series is equally familiar. With dots added to the bottom of both columns (dots 3 and 6), we end up with the letters, u, v, x, y, and z. The remainder of the signs in the third series are assigned, respectively to the French "c" with a cedilla (the sign that make a hard "c" soft, as in "François") and to four vowels with accent marks.

The fourth series consists of the signs of the first series with a dot in position 6. The first nine signs of this series are for letters that we do not usually find in English; the tenth sign of this series, consisting of a dot under the second column of the tenth fundamental sign, is w. Braille did not include w in alphabetic order, because in French it appears only in loan words from other languages. He did, however, see the need to include the letter, so he added it at the end of series 4thus insuring that his code could be used in English, German, and other European languages. Contrary to what many have been taught, Louis Braille did make room for the w; it is a "j" with dot 6 added, and it belongs at the end of the fourth series.

Series five through nine all involve use of one or more dashes as well as dots. Series five represents the ten digits, 1 through 0; series six though nine are used for punctuation, arithmetic signs, and miscellaneous symbols. Braille's explanation concludes with a description of six "supplementary signs" that are not based on the ten fundamental signs.

Before moving on to his discussion of music, Braille observes that the dashes "can present some difficulty." Although he retained them for the moment, he understood that dashes are harder to discern by touch and difficult to write with slate and stylus. His alternative was to assign to the fourth supplementary sign "the property of raising by four degrees the series of the sign it precedes." For example, any sign of the first series, if preceded by the fourth supplementary sign, would become equivalent to the same sign of the fifth series. The fourth supplementary sign is what we now recognize as the number sign, and by placing it in front of the ten signs of the first series, we get the equivalent of the fifth series, or the digits 1 through 0.

We can see the modern Braille alphabet and number system coming into being in this little book published when Louis Braille was barely out of his teens.

Having explained the code, Braille proceeds to describe how it can be used in writing music for the blind. His modifications to the system already in use at the school were modest, except for plainsong, a special system of musical notation used exclusively in Catholic liturgy.

Braille then returns briefly to the basic code. He notes that reading and writing are very different activities and explains why writing must be done from right to left, with all of the signs reversed. He also describes the Braille slate and how it differs from the one Captain Barbier had devised.

Following the main body of the text are an alternative explanation of the ten fundamental signs, a similar explanation of the signs of the fifth series, and a phonetic stenographic system that could be used only in French.

The National Federation of the Blind is pleased to present this first electronic edition of Louis Braille's revolutionary masterpiece of 1829.