American linguist develops Braille alphabet for the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people
Harris Mowbray has never been to Prince Rupert, BC, but he left his touch there.
Mowbray, an amateur linguist and software programmer from California, worked with Prince Rupert-based and Gitga’at Nation member Brendan Eshom to develop a Braille alphabet for Sm’algyax, the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people of the north coast .
Sm’algyax is in serious decline and most speakers are over 70 years old, according to the First Peoples Cultural Council, which is committed to preserving the indigenous languages of BC.
Eshom has been running the Sm’algyax Word of the Day website and mobile app since 2019 to revive the language.
Mowbray found out about the language and started offering its services through Eshom’s website and app in early 2021.
Mowbray has previously created Braille alphabets for the Chamorro and Carolinian languages of the Mariana Islands, the Kashubian and Silesian languages of Poland and others and was looking for his next project.
“I think it’s really important that people who are blind, or who are nearsighted or have vision problems, can participate in languages as much as anyone else,” said Mowbray.
CLOCK | Brendan Eshom talks about learning the Sm’algyax language through courses offered at Prince Rupert schools:
Mowbray reached out to Eshom in February and after online conferences and consultation with the Sm’algyax Language Authority, the redesigned alphabet was added to the smalgyaxword.ca website.
“The development of a Braille alphabet for Sm’algyax will increase the number of people who can literally experience firsthand the knowledge and heritage of the north coast of BC,” Eshom said in a statement.
“People with visual impairments who are fluent in Braille will be able to learn the language just as easily as those with access to printed reference material. I applaud Harris for his expertise and initiative in creating exciting cross-cultural collaboration.”
The new Braille alphabet was released on the Eshom website on July 9th and can be viewed by the public as a series of illustrations corresponding to the characters traditionally used to write Sm’algyax.
Braille is a writing system used by blind or visually impaired people. Publications that use Braille render text as embossed patterns that readers interpret with their fingertips.
Sm’algyax is made by people from the Ts’msyen communities of Maxlaxaala (Metlakatla), Txałgiu (Hartley Bay), Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson), Lax Klan (Gitxaala), Klemtu, Gits’alaasu (Kitselas), Gits . spoken ‘m’Kalm (Kitsmkalum) as well as by Ts’msyen who live in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Alaska and beyond.
Mowbray said that the equivalent Braille alphabet doesn’t have many more characters than the English Braille alphabet, meaning that people who can read English Braille only need to learn a few more letters.
He also said there are computer printers that can create tactile dots on thick paper to make written documents accessible to blind people, as well as modern technology that enables people to send and receive text messages in Braille.
“Accessibility is critical to the preservation and diffusion of minority languages,” said Mowbray, who is not visually impaired, in a statement.
“As I design and adapt Braille alphabets to the written language, I am amazed at the unique way communities maintain and convey culture. Eyesight limits should not be an obstacle for anyone who wants to share this experience. ”
The Braille version of Sm’algyax is available at www.smalgyaxword.ca/resources/braille.
LISTEN | Harris Mowbray on working with Brendan Eshom on a Braille Sm’algyax alphabet:
Daybreak north6:11Translate Sm’algyax into Braille