US student creates braille alphabet for Kashubian and Silesian as part of mission to save minority languages
A university student in the US has found himself the unlikely subject of media attention in Poland after devising a series of braille alphabets for endangered scripts – among them Kashubian and Silesian.
Having originally prepared himself to spend a semester at Kraków’s Jagellonian University as part of a study programme, Harris Mowbray, a 21-year-old computer science student in Washington DC found his plans disrupted by the Coronavirus outbreak.
But despite having his foreign studies cut short, Covid-19 has not prevented Mowbray from making a lasting impact on Polish culture by committing two languages barely known outside of their regions to braille.
“I was supposed to study abroad for many months in Poland, but after just two weeks of classes my ‘home’ university back in the States requested I return,” Mowbray tells TFN. “Though the next four months involved waking up at 4 a.m. for online classes so I could complete my semester, I was able to complete a project focused on Poland’s minority languages in this time.”
With his interest in Kashubian and Silesian sparked, Mowbray soon found himself referring back to these languages on his return to the States.
“After my semester at Jagellonian,” he continues, “I applied my interest in programming and languages to get a job with the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma. I realized their language didn’t have braille so decided to teach it to myself and do something about that – but having done so, it occurred to me how many other languages lacked braille, including some in Poland.”
Using Polish braille as a starting platform, Mowbray then assigned values to new letters existing only in Kashubian and Silesian.
“I assigned these values logically so that they would be easy to learn,” he says, “so for example, the Kashubian Ã was handed the value (⠌) which is a mirror image of the Polish value for Ą (⠡).”
Beginning his project in mid-January, Mowbray has since completed 50 alphabets in all, including those in Lakota, Livonian, Fulani, Osage, Yuchi and Lutsi languages.
“The challenge isn’t making the braille,” he admits, “but rather hiking the steep trails of Mount Bureaucracy.”
Requiring government approval before being recognized officially, Mowbray has faced a minefield of paperwork in his bid to have his alphabets formally accepted by the relevant authorities.
“I don’t think the majority of the languages I’ve done will be made official any time soon, though I’m certain that larger languages such as Sorbian and Chamorro will be accepted – unfortunately, languages need to go through an official legal procedure and go to a vote, and that often takes time.”
In Poland’s case, however, Mowbray remains hopeful.
“I have to convince a government of a country of around 40 million people to approve my personal idea,” he says, “but although that’s not going to be easy, if the Polish people help advocate my project then it won’t nearly be as hard.”
Though it’s early days yet, Mowbray has enjoyed a swell of support. Since news broke of his project, the student’s work has been widely praised and highlighted in dozens of Polish publications – both regional and national.
“If I’m honest I’m not all that surprised by the media attention,” he says. “I began this project two months ago and since then I’ve been on the news in five countries – I expect this number to grow to something like twenty by the end of the year.”
Thought to have originated in the 15th or 16th century, Kashubian was recognized as an ethnic minority language as recently as 2005. Taught in approximately 400 Pomeranian schools in the north of the country, official figures place the number of Kashubian speakers at 108,000, though researchers claim the actual number to be significantly higher.
In fact, with the region witnessing a mass wave of emigration in the second half of the 19th century, traces of the language have continued to survive among the Polish diaspora that subsequently settled in the Americas – including in places as far afield as Canada’s Renfrew County and, even, parts of Brazil.
A variety of Central German, Silesian, on the other hand, is commonly thought to be spoken by just over half a million people and even has its own Wikipedia.
But despite surging, renewed local interest in these languages, until now both have overlooked their visually-impaired practitioners. Thanks to the efforts of Mowbray, this stands to change.
“My goal is basically to help as many people as possible,” he says. “Of course, I’m also motivated by the fact that this could bring me work, new opportunities, or maybe even a girlfriend!”