Harris Mowbray has never been to Prince Rupert, B.C., but he has left his touch there.
Mowbray, an amateur linguist and software programmer based in California, in collaboration with Prince Rupert resident and Gitga’at Nation member Brendan Eshom, has created a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax, the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people of the north coast.
According to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which works to preserve B.C. Indigenous languages, Sm’algyax is in serious decline and most speakers are over 70 years old.
Eshom, in an effort to revitalize the language, has operated the Sm’algyax Word of the Day website and mobile app since 2019.
It was through Eshom’s website and app that Mowbray learned about the language in early 2021 and offered his services.
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 blind people, or people who are near-sighted or have some visual issues should be able to participate in languages as much as everyone else,” said Mowbray.
WATCH | Brendan Eshom speaks about learning the Sm’algyax language through courses available at Prince Rupert schools:
Mowbray reached out to Eshom in February and, after online conferencing and consultation with the Sm’algyax Language Authority, the newly-conceived alphabet was added to the smalgyaxword.ca website.
“The development of a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax increases the number of people who can experience the knowledge and heritage of B.C.’s North Coast — literally first-hand,” Eshom said in a statement.
“People with visual challenges who are fluent in braille will be able to learn the language as readily as those who have access to printed reference materials. I applaud Harris for his expertise and initiative, which have enabled an exciting cross-cultural collaboration.”
The new braille alphabet launched on Eshom’s website on July 9 and can be viewed by the public as a series of illustrations that correspond to characters conventionally used to write Sm’algyax.
Braille is a system of writing used by people who are blind or have limited vision. Publications using braille render text as embossed patterns that readers interpret using their fingertips.
Sm’algyax is spoken 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’m’Kalm (Kitsmkalum) as well as by Ts’msyen people who live in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Alaska and beyond.
Mowbray said the corresponding braille alphabet does not have that many more characters than the English braille alphabet, meaning 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 heavy paper to make written documents accessible to blind individuals, as well as modern technology that enables people to send and receive text messages in braille.
“Accessibility is vital for the preservation and spread of minority languages,” said Mowbray, who is not visually-impaired, in a statement.
“As I devise and fit braille alphabets to written vernacular, I’m amazed at the unique ways that communities preserve and transmit culture. Limits to sightedness should not be a barrier to anyone who wants to share that experience.”
The braille version of Sm’algyax is available at www.smalgyaxword.ca/resources/braille.
LISTEN | Harris Mowbray on collaborating with Brendan Eshom on a braille Sm’algyax alphabet:
Daybreak North6:11Translating Sm’algyax into Braille