a picture of the braille alphabet in simulated braille
Braille is a tactile script used by blind people to read and write. It was invented by Louis Braille almost 200 years ago. It represents printable characters such as alphabet letters, numbers and punctuation by means of tactile symbols consisting of differing combinations of up to six dots each. There are two grades of braille: grade 1 which is normally used by beginners, where there is a character for character representation of the printed material and grade 2 in which many contractions and abbreviations are used in order to speed up reading and conserve some space. All South African languages have grade 2 systems, but because of linguistic reasons and differences of word patterns in the languages, they have different grade 2 systems; for example, the letter k when standing on its own, is a contraction for the English word “knowledge”, but in Xhosa it stands for “kodwa” and in Afrikaans it means “kan”. Several of these grade codes had been developed before the advent of the computer and many of the contraction rules are based on pronunciation which does not work well in an automated process. For example, “mother” may be contracted when it is a word on its own, as well as in the words “motherhood” and “smothered”, but definitely not in a word like “chemotherapy”. The existence of grade 2 codes complicates the production and learning of braille. People who do not use braille, often do not understand why the braille production process takes long and why teaching braille is a long and complex process.