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6/29/10

Questions about Braille and Sign Language

Is sign language universal?

No, sign languages, just like spoken languages, are not universal. Different countries have different sign languages, and sign languages do not necessarily correspond to spoken languages. For example, the U.S., the U.K, Australia, and New Zealand all have English in common as the spoken language, but all have completely unrelated sign languages. Canada shares one sign language in common with the U.S. (American Sign Language) but also has other sign languages not used in the U.S.

Are sign languages related to spoken languages?

No. Sign languages have their own grammar and sentence structures, separate from the spoken languages in the same regions. The only aspect of spoken language that is reflected in the same region's signed language is the alphabet. Most sign languages have a manual alphabet, or a series of handshapes that represent each letter or character of the local writing system. It's generally used to spell out words that don't have a signed equivalent, like personal names and some place names (although common place names tend to have a sign of their own).

Is braille universal?

No, braille is not universal. Braille, unlike sign language, is not a language but a system of encoding the written word. Braille codes correspond to written systems, so there is a braille code for the Latin alphabet, for the Arabic alphabet, for the Cyrillic alphabet, Devanagari (the script used in many Indian languages), Hangul (the Korean script) and so on.

How does Braille work?

Braille works by a system of raised dots. One full braille cell contains six raised dots and is three cells tall and two dots wide. Each dot in a braille cell is numbered one through six, starting from the top left going down and then from the top right going down. Depending on which of the possible positions contain a dot, the overall braille cell changes meaning. (An empty cell is a space in braille.) Braille is written from left to right, regardless of the original direction of the alphabet being transcribed (which means that even Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese braille are always written from left to right, even though Arabic and Hebrew are written right to left in print, and Chinese and Japanese can be written vertically or horizontally). The reader can then feel the dot combinations under their finger or fingers. Braille does not use separate characters for capital or lowercase letters, or regular and italic, but it does have specific braille characters that tell the reader the following letter or word is capitalized or italicized.

What's the different between Grade 1 and Grade 2 Braille?

Grade 1, or uncontracted braille means that each character in print is represented by a character in braille, or in other words, there is a one-to-one ratio of print characters to braille characters. Contrary to popular belief, this includes all symbols and punctuation. Grade 2, or uncontracted braille uses a system of contractions to shorten the braille in order to save space. A single braille character can stand for a word or a group of letters, and two or more braille characters can stand for a word part or a whole word as well. Unlike shortcuts used in print, contracted braille is standardized and used for all literary publications with the exception of materials written for beginning readers.

How can Braille be produced?

There are several ways to produce braille. The most portable and low-tech way is with a slate and stylus. A slate is a metal or plastic frame with holes in the braille patterns. The stylus is a small utensil used to punch the braille dots in the holes. A piece of paper is inserted into the slate and the stylus is used to punch the holes into whatever patterns necessary.

A second way is to use a Perkins brailler, or braille typewriter. A braille typewriter works much like a regular typewriter, except that instead of having keys for each letter of the alphabet, there are keys for each dot of the braille cell along with a space bar and an enter key. The typist uses a method called "chording" where any one to six of the cells are punched at once to produce dots within the braille cell.

A third way is to produce braille electronically, through a computer. It can either be produced by typing into any text document and using software to convert to braille or it can be typed with specific software that emulates the key layout of a Perkins brailler, either on a regular QWERTY keyboard or on a hardware device that has the same keys as a Perkins Brailler. Some braille users also have a hardware device attached to their computer that gives them braille output by a system of raised and lowered pins.

How is braille produced on paper?

To produce paper braille, a special braille printer called an embosser is used. Rather than using ink to print, it punches the braille patterns into the paper. Special paper that is slightly thicker than usual needs to be used so that the braille dots aren't punched all the way through. Braille can be printed on one or both sides, just like inkprint.

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