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Non-English Accents in Braille

A guest post from a member of the Bookshare Collection Development team and a Bookshare Member, Liz Halperin.

Ever wonder how braille handles non-English accent marks? Things like umlauts or tildes or other accent marks from Spanish, French, German, Danish, Polish, and so on? Remember, in braille, everything happens with just 6 dots (or 8 dots for digital or computer braille) in a group. (See other resources about basic braille structure of dots and cells, uncontracted and contracted braille, etc.)  So how can braille indicate there is an accent mark over the e in the French word café or the Spanish word señora?  And with French, some accents can go either direction. Or in Danish, the letter o with a diagonal line through it? (Whatever that’s called.) How is that indicated in braille? Big simple answer: it’s not. That’s not discrimination, it’s just the nature of the beast.

In braille, there is a marker, the Dot 4 (top right dot in a 6 or 8 dot computer cell– that means the next letter is accented. That’s all braille can tell you. It doesn’t indicate what the accent is (and you’d have to know the names of them all–cedilla, umlaut, grave vs. acute, circumflex, the letter “o” with the diagonal line) nor what language it’s from. Braille just can’t provide all that within its structure. When you read print, you may recognize a non-English language by the types of accent markings it uses, or you may not. But unless there’s a context clue or statement, print-readers often don’t know what the language is. Neither do braille readers. But we also don’t get the accent itself for help guessing.

Each of the languages that uses braille adds or subtracts letters to fit their alphabet. Braille came from the French who don’t have the letter “w.” English had to add a dot combination not already in use to become “w.” Using Spanish as an example, Spanish has its own letters and punctuation that are different than English. It has dot combos to indicate the upside down exclamation point and question mark, the accented letters, and so on. Spanish braille also has its own contractions. Each language does. If English braille had a word that suddenly had accents from another language, and used those dot combinations, we wouldn’t understand them unless we knew that language’s braille codes. Faced with those accented letters, we’d likely think there were errors in the braille output.

So, no, braille is not equal to print regarding non-English accents, but these are the reasons and that’s the way it goes. We can’t fault the people creating the braille. It’s an inherent facet of the structure, the way you just can’t roll a cube as you can a sphere. It’s not in the structure. So be it and so now you know.

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