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The Barbier Alphabet


Night Writing or Sonographie by the French artillery captain Charles Barbier (new window)

The purpose of the "night writing" by  Charles Barbier de la Serre (new window in french), invented around 1815 for military use, was to be able to transmit troop commands in darkness, without betraying one's own position. They should be written and read without lighting a light.

His tactile signs each consisted of two vertical rows of one to six dots, which were pressed into paper by means of a simple device. Reading was done by turning the sheet around and feeling the raised dots.

'chiffrer dans le noir' in night writing

Barbier experimented with a three, eleven and twelve dot system. In the twelve-dot system, his later Night Writing (Ecriture Nocturne), the possible 36 characters were assigned to French sounds.


Barbier Alphabet as graphic
Barbier Alphabet
    ---------- Table Barbier Alphabet: ----------
    Numbers behind the d in parentheses are occupied dots
    according to the following scheme (left column) (right column):
      Line 1: [1] [1]
      Line 2: [2] [2]
      Line 3: [3] [3]
      Line 4: [4] [4]
      Line 5: [5] [5]
      Line 6: [6] [6]

    Sound 'a'   =  d1 + d1
    Sound 'i'   =  d1 + d12
    Sound 'o'   =  d1 + d123
    Sound 'u'   =  d1 + d1234
    Sound 'é'   =  d1 + d12345
    Sound 'è'   =  d1 + d123456

    Sound 'an'  =  d12 + d1
    Sound 'in'  =  d12 + d12
    Sound 'on'  =  d12 + d123
    Sound 'un'  =  d12 + d1234
    Sound 'eu'  =  d12 + d12345
    Sound 'ou'  =  d12 + d123456

    Sound 'b'   =  d123 + d1
    Sound 'd'   =  d123 + d12
    Sound 'g'   =  d123 + d123
    Sound 'j'   =  d123 + d1234
    Sound 'v'   =  d123 + d12345
    Sound 'z'   =  d123 + d123456

    Sound 'p'   =  d1234 + d1
    Sound 't'   =  d1234 + d12
    Sound 'q'   =  d1234 + d123
    Sound 'ch'  =  d1234 + d1234
    Sound 'f'   =  d1234 + d12345
    Sound 's'   =  d1234 + d123456

    Sound 'l'   =  d12345 + d1
    Sound 'm'   =  d12345 + d12
    Sound 'n'   =  d12345 + d123
    Sound 'r'   =  d12345 + d1234
    Sound 'gn'  =  d12345 + d12345
    Sound 'll'  =  d12345 + d123456

    Sound 'oi'  =  d123456 + d1
    Sound 'oin' =  d123456 + d12
    Sound 'ian' =  d123456 + d123
    Sound 'ien' =  d123456 + d1234
    Sound 'ion' =  d123456 + d12345
    Sound 'ieu' =  d123456 + d123456
    ------------- End of Barbier Alphabet ---------------
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die print version of Barbier Alphabet (new window)   [text version of Barbier Alphabets (new window) ]

How did Barbier come to this writing?

He developed it from the then usual way to encrypt messages using a table. The 36 possible sounds corresponded to two digits each (1st digit horizontal = line, 2nd digit vertical = column). Due to the strong reduction to only 36 sounds, the language could only be reproduced inaccurately, hence the name sonography (sound font).

Barbier's Coding Table (description see barbier-code.txt)
barbier-code.txt

The complete French alphabet includes with umlauts to the 43 letters, the French notation is very complicated. Hence the idea with the phonetics.

1.) Transformation of the text into numbers (encode)

'chiffrer dans le noir' as number code 44(ch) 12(i) 45(f) 45(f) 54(r) 15(e) 54(r)   32(d) 21(an) 46(46)   51(l) 15(e)   53(n) 61(oi) 54(r)

2.) Representation of the numbers as tactile dots

number code 44 12 45 45 54 15 54   32 21 46   51 15   53 61 54 in dot series

But since no light could be used to read and write his Night Writing, the coding table had to be memorized. Added to the problem of used phonetic transcription was the practical difficulty: that the sometimes long rows of dots with the fingers were difficult to detect. Because of that, his idea under military conditions was not practical, making the Night Writing of Charles Barbier never gained importance.

Original sheet with Barbier Alphabet

Still convinced of the value of his Night Writing, Charles Barbier submitted it to the Institute for the Blind in Paris in 1819 and 1820, which brought the young Louis Braille in contact with it and further developed it for himself. He replaced the sounds with letters and reduced the up to 12 dots to the known six. As a result, Braille's blind writing was quickly learned by the blind and could also prevail internationally.

Another advantage of Braille Alphabet over Barbier's Night Writing was the ability to display numbers and punctuation marks. That did not play any role in encrypting messages, but for use in mathematics or high-level literature.


Braille Alphabet als Grafik - zum Braille- Alphabet

But not only Louis Braille was inspired by the Night Writing of Charles Barbier. Alexander Fakoó also developed his Fakoo Writing out of the idea of creating a dot writing for blind and sighted people with only 12 dots, but in a grid of 3 × 4 dots. By further attempts the number of dots could then be reduced to 9 dots (see Fakoo). Text 'DIE ALTERNATIVE ZU BRAILLE' in Fakoo auf einer Braillezeile


Direct comparison of the writings Barbier, Fakoo and Moon:
'Chiffrer dans le noir' in Barbier, Fakoo und Moon