Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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Braille and the IPA: Empowering Careers in the Language Sciences

by Robert Englebretson

Robert EnglebretsonFrom the Editor: Dr. Robert Englebretson is an associate professor of linguistics at Rice University. He is the author and editor of several books and research articles and teaches a broad range of linguistics and cognitive science courses. His primary research areas include discourse and grammar, language in social interaction, American English, and colloquial Indonesian. Additionally, Englebretson seeks to promote Braille as a relevant and fruitful research topic for the cognitive sciences and, vice versa, seeks to highlight the relevance of general findings from linguistics and cognitive science for ongoing research on Braille. He developed and taught an upper-level course on this topic at Rice University in 2009 in conjunction with the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Louis Braille. Englebretson has served as the U.S. representative to the International Council on English Braille's Foreign Languages and Linguistics Committee, under whose auspices he published the current Braille system for representing the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA Braille). He currently serves on the Research Committee of the Braille Authority of North America.

I learned to read when I started school in the mid-1970s, and I soon became quite a bookworm. At the time Braille seemed completely unremarkable to me. It struck me as basic common sense that, while sighted classmates learned to read and write print, I would learn to read and write Braille. This was simply how things worked--and I never realized until much later what an amazing gift this actually was. In general I had excellent teachers with high expectations. And, most important, I had supportive parents with even higher expectations, who understood that Braille is the key to literacy, education, and employment.

I believed then, as I do now, that Braille is both normal and necessary. Whatever task a sighted person accomplished using print, I expected to accomplish the same task using Braille. Of course I knew there were differences—books were much larger and heavier and came in multiple volumes, and I soon learned to use books on audio cassette when Braille was not available. But, while I recognized the importance of being flexible and acquiring a virtual toolbox of alternative techniques, I did not change my core attitude, valuing Braille as both normal and necessary.

When I started college in 1988, students had no support for obtaining university textbooks and course materials in Braille. As we all did in those days, I relied on cassettes; live readers; and, much later, a computer with a scanner and speech synthesizer—and finally a Braille notetaker and display. I continued to use Braille for my own notes, for writing paper drafts before typing them on the computer, and for the occasional bit of leisure reading whenever time allowed.

One of the courses I signed up for on my very first day on campus was an introductory linguistics course. In fact it is a course that I have now taught at least a dozen times. And after that course I was hooked. Linguistics is a broad and fascinating field that approaches language from a variety of perspectives and disciplines. I was fascinated by the questions linguistics was asking, such as what language is; how it works; in what ways the grammars of the world’s languages are similar and in what ways they differ; why specific languages are the way they are; and, ultimately, what kinds of things languages teach us about the human mind, societies, and cultures. I was also drawn to the idea of doing fieldwork far away from the United States, to find out more about other languages—something which I eventually did, when I lived in Indonesia in the mid-1990s doing research for my doctoral dissertation.

One of the first things a student in an introductory linguistics course must learn is the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). The IPA is an internationally adopted set of symbols recognized among professionals in the language sciences. It is developed and maintained by the International Phonetic Association, and its goal is to represent unambiguously all of the sounds in the approximately six thousand languages spoken on earth today. By “unambiguously” I mean that the IPA is not tied to the writing system or the spelling system of a specific language, rather an IPA symbol has the same pronunciation regardless of which language it is notating. In fact it is often used when working with speakers of languages that have no writing system at all.

The IPA comprises nearly two hundred unique symbols. These include symbols for consonants (including a number of rare consonants like clicks, ejectives, and implosives), vowels (including the sixteen or so that are used in American English, and many more that show up in other languages), suprasegmentals (tone, stress, and other features of intonation and prosody), and a number of diacritics (symbols that indicate a modified pronunciation of a sound, such as lengthening a vowel, aspirating a consonant, and so on.) Typically a student learns a basic version of the IPA in an introductory course, just for the sounds of English, and then will go on to take a series of courses in phonetics that go into depth about all of the sounds notated by the IPA and will learn about the physiology and acoustics of speech.

The IPA is used in numerous language-related endeavors for a range of purposes. Field linguists use it when documenting and describing endangered languages. This is of particular focus and humanitarian interest right now, since it is widely estimated that over half of the world’s nearly six thousand spoken languages will become extinct by the end of the twenty-first century. There is currently a good deal of collaboration among linguists and indigenous communities to document and describe languages before they disappear. Sociolinguists use the IPA when studying regional varieties of English or other languages, when it is necessary to capture exact pronunciations. Clinicians, specifically speech and language pathologists, use the IPA when diagnosing and treating voice and communication disorders. Computational linguists often use the IPA when working on speech synthesis and recognition. The IPA is used for teaching purposes, such as in many pronunciation guides and textbooks, and in some ESL and second-language learning materials. The IPA is also used in the performing arts, for vocal music pedagogy as well as in accent training for actors. And, by the way, Wikipedia uses the IPA to show pronunciation in Wikipedia entries—and they usually do a fairly good job with it. In short, the IPA is required in any endeavor in which it is desirable or necessary to capture specific nuances of pronunciation, voice quality, and intonation.

For those of us who are blind and who work or are studying in these fields, a Braille notation of the IPA is crucial. So one of the first things I wondered as a freshman student sitting in an introductory linguistics course was: "How do you do this in Braille?" Given my belief that, if a sighted person could do something using print, a blind person could likewise accomplish the same task using Braille, I figured there must certainly be a Braille notation for the IPA. And indeed there was, except I soon discovered that the situation was complicated by the unfortunate fact that the available IPA Braille notations were incomplete and out of date.

The earliest Braille notation of the IPA was Merrick and Potthoff (1934), published in London by the organization that is now called the Royal National Institute of Blind People. This volume was developed by an international council that met in Vienna in 1929; W. Percy Merrick (the lead author) was a British musicologist who was well known for compiling a collection of folk songs, was an Esperanto proponent, was a world traveler, and happened to be blind. He was traveling and working in a time when most blind people were not. Merrick and Potthoff worked with Daniel Jones at the University College, London, who was one of the best known phoneticians in the early twentieth century. They collaborated to develop the 1934 IPA Braille notation in order to open up language-related fields to blind people. [Editor’s Note: In the following sentence the author presents a sample of the IPA Braille code. We have inserted a representation for our Braille readers, a different one for our print readers, and yet another for readers of the audio edition.] A review of the Merrick and Potthoff notation (Quick 1936) in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association concluded: “[ðɪs buk ɪz ðə rɪzʌlt əv mʌtʃ peɪʃnt tɔɪl ənd wɪl hɛlp tə meɪk pɒsɪbl fə blaɪnd stjudnts ə stʌdɪ fə wɪtʃ ðeɪ meɪ bi pri-ɛmɪnəntlɪ sjutɪd]”phonetic notation with audio (Quick 1936: 51). {This book is the result of much patient toil and will help to make possible for blind students a study for which they may be preeminently suited.} Of course from our early twenty-first century perspective, the idea that blind people might be "preeminently suited" for a particular career would rankle most of us as being both limiting and stereotypic—but, I would contend that in the late 1930s it was quite radical even to mention Braille in a mainstream academic journal, much less to suggest, as this review overtly does, that this Braille system would enable blind people to engage in study and work. Potential stereotypes aside, Merrick and Potthoff, as well as the review’s author, clearly recognized the importance of Braille.

The 1934 Merrick and Potthoff Braille IPA notation was adopted in the UK, in most countries in Europe, and in North America. It was the version reproduced in the 1977 Code of Braille Textbook Formats and Techniques (AAWB 1977: Rule XIX, section 45), which I discovered when I sought to answer the question of how to represent the IPA in Braille, and it was the version that I tried to use throughout my undergraduate and graduate coursework. Reprinted versions were available from the RNIB in London, from the Blindenstudienanstalt in Marburg, Germany, as well as from other libraries around the world.

However, serious problems had begun to emerge regarding the Merrick and Potthoff notation. First, it was poorly publicized and not well known. I was never able to find a Braille transcriber who would transcribe linguistics material using it. Several blind individuals I have met over the past two decades have told me that they tried to take a linguistics course in college but found the IPA too daunting, and a couple of students insisted to me (despite evidence to the contrary) that it was impossible to represent the IPA in Braille. Second, the Merrick and Potthoff notation had not been updated to reflect the additions, deletions, and major changes to the print IPA during the course of the twentieth century. While the core of the system remained relatively stable, there had been major revisions to the print IPA since the 1932 chart that the Merrick and Potthoff notation was based on. By 2008, when I oversaw the publication of a fully updated and revised Braille notation, the Merrick and Potthoff system was seventy-six years out of date. Numerous print symbols had no Braille counterpart, and conversely numerous Braille symbols had print equivalents that had become obsolete and were no longer used. There was no way that the Merrick and Potthoff notation could be used in advanced linguistics work. I and other blind linguists tended to make up our own symbols and techniques on the fly—which of course meant material could not be shared and was often inconsistent.

Finally, in 1997 the situation got even more complicated with the publication of a completely unrelated Braille notation for the IPA, in Braille Formats (BANA 1997: Rule 18). No linguist that I know of ever used it, and it was already based on an out-of-date print IPA chart when it was published. It also led to the unfortunate situation that the International Phonetic Alphabet was no longer remotely international, since the US and Canada were now officially using a different Braille IPA system from the UK and most of Europe, which were still using the Merrick and Potthoff notation.

In 2005 I was invited to work with ICEB (International Council on English Braille) to serve on the Committee on Foreign Languages and Linguistics. One of the main goals of this committee was to unify the Braille IPA notation used in the US with that used in the UK and much of the rest of the world. I began by seeking input from other Braille-reading linguists. All of us had been inventing our own idiosyncratic systems as needs arose, based loosely on the Merrick and Potthoff 1934 notation. I aimed to ensure that the revised Braille IPA notation was fully usable, international, and as broadly available as possible. I announced the Braille IPA project widely on linguistics and phonetics e-mail lists for public comment and received feedback and suggestions from both sighted phoneticians and, most important, other Braille readers. I piloted the revised system with blind students in university-level linguistics courses, including one that I taught at Rice University. As much as possible the revision kept the core of the Merrick and Potthoff notation, since that was clearly the system that Braille IPA users were the most familiar and comfortable with, although the notation for diacritics and suprasegmentals had to be completely revised. Another goal was to ensure that the updated Braille IPA notation was fully computable, was Unicode compatible, and was able to be forward-and-back-translated between print and Braille.

The end result was published in a two-volume set (Englebretson 2008), with a foreword by Dr. Fredric Schroeder. The full citation and URL are listed in the references of this article. It is freely downloadable from the ICEB website and can also be obtained in hard copy. The first volume contains an introduction to the IPA and a complete overview and explanation of IPA Braille. It includes tables of symbols, typographic and articulatory descriptions of each symbol, and the corresponding Unicode codepoints. The second volume consists of tactile illustrations of each print IPA glyph, side by side with the corresponding Braille symbol.

After publishing the revised IPA Braille notation in 2008, the next step was to make the wider community of linguists and phoneticians aware of it. To this end I wrote an article about IPA Braille (Englebretson 2009), which was published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, one of the top peer-reviewed journals in the field. The goal of this article was to call professional awareness to IPA Braille so that, when blind students enroll in linguistics courses, their instructors will easily be able to refer their students to IPA Braille, and students will be able to locate it easily without having to dig through Braille codebooks. IPA Braille is also included in recent releases of the Duxbury Braille Translator. It was adopted by BANA as the official code for transcribing IPA in the US and Canada and is being used successfully in the UK and in other ICEB member countries.

Those who would like more information about IPA Braille can contact me directly at the e-mail address at the end of this article. My website, also listed there, contains links to a number of resources. These include information for configuring screen readers (such as JAWS) to read IPA symbols and links to Unicode fonts, keyboard mappers, and other technology for reading and typing IPA.

This paper has been about extending Braille into new arenas in order to facilitate people’s studying and working in a variety of language-related careers. It is amazing that the six dots of Braille are used for such a diverse variety of purposes and can empower us in so many different ways. In conclusion, for those seeking careers in the language sciences, IPA Braille enables us to do the same tasks as those who use the print IPA. Returning to the core belief about Braille that I grew up with, Braille is both normal and necessary—and IPA Braille is simply an extension of this basic value.

Dr. Englebretson may be contacted at the Department of Linguistics, Rice University, by calling (713) 348-4776 or by writing to him at <>. We are not reprinting his extensive list of references, but they can be sent to anyone who requests them by writing to <>.

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