He is a benevolent character on the hunt for unusual ones.
Since January 2021, Harris Mowbray has digitally trekked the globe, making Braille alphabets mostly for minority and endangered languages.
To date, the international studies major has proposed close to 150 alphabets, from the West Slavic Sorbian and Kashubian to Chamorro and Carolinian, spoken on the Northern Mariana Islands. Ninety percent have yet to advance further, unable to gain traction with media and government officials or tied up in bureaucratic red tape. But a lucky dozen or so—including Braille languages for Livonian, native to Latvia; Fulani of West Africa; and Lakota—have gained at least preliminary government approval.
Worldwide, more than 200 million people live with moderate to severe vision impairment—a figure that could triple by 2050 as the population ages. “A culture’s entire worldview can be contained in a language,” says Mowbray. A 197-year-old language code broadens that worldview.
His efforts began in December 2019 with an email to the Osage Nation. The tribe of 50,000 made the switch from a Latin alphabet to the Osage script in 2006. Fifteen years later, Mowbray, also a crack coder, relayed a helpful program, created in his spare time, that converted Latin text to Osage.
As Mowbray worked on an Osage keyboard, online dictionary, and thesaurus later that year, he pondered what might help sustain languages teetering on extinction in the twenty-first century. His mind turned to Braille.
“You can’t have a language come back from dying if everyone can’t learn it,” he says.
Mowbray’s self-designed program transforms letters into 3-by-2 Braille matrices in 15 minutes. He follows both United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization conventions and logical rules—the Sorbian “L” and “Ł,” for example, share a similar dot pattern.
Mowbray’s passion project earns no income. He is instead motivated by the thought of providing another option for thousands unable to read their preferred language.
“I think of the utilitarian net good,” he says. “If I don't do it, nobody else is going to.”