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Five-Minute Introduction to Braille

Braille is a system of transcribing print so it can be read by touch. Braille is now mainly used by blind people but the original idea was for soldiers to be able to read at night without putting themselves in danger by using any light. You can learn about braille by reading this page and following the links.

Fig. 1. Dot positions.


The characters of the standard braille alphabet are called cells and consist of dots placed on a two-column grid with three positions in each column; there are 63 different cells not counting the space. The positions are normally numbered starting at the top of the left-hand column as shown in Figure 1.

The two main forms of tactile braille are embossed paper braille and refreshable braille displays (RBDs) in which an electronic signal results in pins moving up and down to make a row of cells. Braille readers use RBDs as computer monitors.


A natural question is what the braille cells mean. However, the cells have no intrinsic meanings; since there is only one standard braille alphabet, the cells mean different things depending on which braille code is in use: math, music, Japanese, etc. The most common code in the United States is literary braille or, more accurately, standard English Braille American Edition (EBAE).

Braille is not just one-to-one with print and—even within a single code—the same cells are re-used to have different meanings in different contexts. For example, the cell for the letter "p" in literary braille means "people" when it stands alone as a word. (The use of context-dependent shorthand is one reason why transcribing from print to braille isn't straightforward; much transcribing today is done with computer applications, cf. Duxbury Systems, Inc.)

The braille shorthand symbols are called contractions; in addition to whole-word contractions, there are also numerous part-word contractions. The rules for using contractions aren't simple; one needs to either look them up in a reference or learn them from a source like Braille through Remote Learning. In addition to contractions, the other unique aspect of braille codes are their use of HTML-like embedded markup or composition indicators; for example, when the cell with a single dot in position 6 is placed before a letter cell in literary braille, it means that the letter is capitalized.

Memorizing the dots.

One way to learn the alphabet in literary braille is to memorize the dot patterns for the first ten letters, a-j, shown by the simulated or inkprint braille cells in Figure 2.

Fig. 2. Braille cells a-j in alphabetical order.

(The shadow dots in empty positions are for sighted persons and are not used in embossed braille.)

The dot patterns for the next ten letters, k-t, are the same as the first ten but with an additional dot in position 3. The dot patterns for the letters u,v,x,y, and z are the same as the letters a-e with additional dots in positions 3 and 6. The letter "w", dot pattern 2-4-5-6, is out of alphabetical order because the French alphabet did not have that letter when Louis Braille invented the braille alphabet in 1829.

All 63 braille cells are shown with their literary braille identifications on our Find-A-Cell chart. The Find-A-Cell chart can be used to quickly locate the meaning of an unknown dot pattern. (Note that a more common way of displaying the braille cells is the so-called standard order with five rows of ten cells followed by one row of six and one of seven as illustrated by the Braille ASCII chart.)

10-11-12-13-21-23-30-31-32-33 acedijbfhg
Fig. 3. Braille cells a-j in numerical order by their NUMBRL codes.
A new method.

Figure 3 shows a different arrangement of the first ten cells that you may find makes it easier to memorize their dot patterns.

Dotless Braille Tip! Note that the dot patterns of the braille cells in the sequence "aced" all have a dot in dot position one and a simple progression of zero, one, or two dots in dot positions four and five of the right-hand column of the cells. The dot patterns of the cells in the sequence "bfhg" are the same as the corresponding cells in the "aced" sequence except for the addition of a dot in dot position two while the dot patterns for "ij" are the same as for "cd" except for a dot in position two instead of position one.

If you are familiar with the binary number system, you may have realized that the order in Figure 3 is based on interpreting the braille cells as binary-coded numbers that use filled positions for ones and empty positions for zeroes. This means that you can use the numbers to reconstruct the dot patterns. The octal numerical values used in Figure 3 are based on our particularly useful NUMBRL assignment of place values to the dot positions.

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This page was last modified May 31, 2002

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