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Swift and Secret Writing: The Rise and Fall of Shorthand Writing Systems

By Edited Jul 4, 2016 0 2

When I left high school in the pre-computer world of the 1960s, I enrolled in a secretarial course at my local college. One of the core courses, along with office practices and typing, was Pitman shorthand. To say that I found this course challenging would be an understatement. Mastering the Pitman system meant mastering a completely new method of writing. I had to learn a set of squiggles that represented various spoken sounds, and then practice writing them rapidly with a fountain pen. At the same time I had to write these peculiar squiggles clearly and accurately so that I could actually read what I had written.

I struggled to master this skill because it was absolutely essential if I wanted to become an executive secretary. As people speak on average between 150 and 180 words per minute but can only write 30 to 40 words per minute, shorthand was essential for taking verbatim notes.  It was not only used for taking business dictation and for recording meeting minutes, but was also valued as a means of writing confidential notes which untrained people could not read. Shorthand was also an essential skill for journalists and court reporters, and for accurately recording parliamentary proceedings.

A reporter writes notes at the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting at the State Department in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2011


The first documented European shorthand system was invented by Marcos Tullius Tiro in ancient Rome. The Romans used it for recording public speeches, and for sending encrypted military communications.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1840-1919

The first English shorthand writing system was Charactery, created by Timothy Bright, and explained in his book An Arte of Shorte, Swifte, and Secrete Writing by Character (1588). It must have been even more difficult to learn than Pitman because the user had to memorize 500 symbols, and it was reportedly quite clumsy and inaccurate.

An improved system was introduced by John Willis, considered the father of modern shorthand, in The Art of Stenographie (1602). This system used a small number of basic geometrical symbols and additional marks for vowels. This was was a practical and successful system which was used for over two hundred years.


Types of Shorthand Systems

Over the next 350 years Willis's system gave rise to a dizzying number of shorthand systems, most of which fall into two broad classifications, alphabetic and phonetic. Alphabetic systems use the standard Roman alphabet to write abbreviated forms of words. For example, in the alphabetic system Speedwriting invented by Emma Dearborn in 1924, the sentence "Pay the bill" could be written "pa.bl" . Other alphabetic systems include Stenoscript and Forkner, which came into use in the 1950s.

In contrast, phonetic systems use specially designed symbols to represent the sounds of the spoken word. For example, the final sound of the three words "cliff", "graph" and "rough" is the same "f" sound and so will be represented by the same symbol.

Alphabetic systems are easy to learn and to read but only allow users to reach fairly low recording speeds of 80 to 100 words per minute. Phonetic systems are more difficult to learn but allow proficient users to reach recording speeds fast enough for accurate verbatim recording of fast speech.

There are also several hybrid systems which combine phonetic and alphabetic elements.

Dutton Speedwords was created in 1922 by Reginald Dutton, who envisaged it as a means of international communication. This system uses Roman letters as symbols to represent words. For example, the letter l is used to represent "the" and the letter d is used to represent "of". Longer words are written using letter combinations to represent roots and affixes. For example, ac represents the root word buy, ac-o-p represents market and ac-o-r represents seller.

Forkner shorthand, introduced in the U.S.A. in 1952, uses a combination of conventional letters and symbols. For example, a short dash written above the line represents the letter H, and dash through a letter C represents CH and a dash through an S represents SH.

Teeline, invented by James Hill in 1970, uses symbols which, while unrecognizable to most readers, are based on simplified forms of alphabet letters .  Here is the Lord's Prayer written in Teeline.

The Lord's Prayer, written in Teeline shorthand and Latin script for comparison
Teeline is easy to learn and experienced users can reach a speed of 12o to 150 words a minute. However, it is is still slower than true phonetic systems.

Pitman and Gregg

The most popular and effective phonetic systems are Pitman and Gregg.

The Pitman system, introduced by Isaac Pitman in the 1837 publication Stenographic Sound-Hand, became the most successful and widely used system of verbatim speech recording. It spread from the United Kingdom, where it originated, to many other countries and was adapted for use in several different languages.


Pitman is an elegant system which uses lines and curves on lined paper to represent consonants and small dots of dashes next to the written lines to indicate vowels. Unvoiced and voiced consonant pairs are indicated by light and heavy lines. For instance, a lightly drawn vertical line is used for "t" and a heavier line for "d", while "k" and "g" are represented by line and  heavy horizontal lines respectively. Since vowels are also indicated by the position of the written symbols relative to the lines on the paper, vowel marks can be omitted for increased speed, and special short forms for common words allow even greater speeds.

Pitman is both fast and accurate, and enabled Nathan Behrin to reach a world record writing speed of 350 words per minute in 1922.

Here is a Detailed Explanation of How the Pitman System Works

Shorthand, Pitman's: New Era (Teach Yourself)
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John Robert Gregg published Light-Line Phonography in 1888. It became popular because it was simpler than Pitman, and was more widely used than Pitman in the United States. In Gregg's system the position, thickness and angles of strokes are unimportant, and fast speeds are achieved by blending the symbols for consonants and vowels like cursive handwriting. On the other hand, it is not as accurate as Pitman because a single symbol may have several meanings.

This Video Shows a Skilled Gregg Writer in Action

The GREGG Shorthand Manual Simplified
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The Impact of Technology

Shortly after I began to use Pitman shorthand in my professional life, audio technology began changing the way notes were taken. Small portable dictating machines combined with foot activated play devices such as the Dictaphone© system enabled executives to dictate letters for later transcription without a secretary needing to be present.

Sony dictaphone

Reporters found it easier to use small pocket recorders instead of taking hand written notes.

Court reporters in the United States had been using Stenotype or Stenograph machines since the nineteenth century. The first Stenograph machine was introduced by Miles Bartholomew in 1877 and was improved upon by several subsequent inventors. These machines have specially designed keyboards which enable the operator to produce a word by striking several keys at once, a process that has been compared to playing chords on a piano. This enables a trained operator to reach speeds of up to 250 words per minute. Before the advent of computers the transcript was printed out and interpreted by specialized transcribers, known as scopists. Now the record is immediately translated by computer software, and a judge with a smart phone can have immediate reference to a court transcript.



See How Combining a Stenotype Machine with Computer Software Creates a Powerful Recording System

But shorthand still did not disappear entirely. While I found that my skill was no longer in demand in the general office environment, it was still very much in demand for recording meeting minutes. A human recorder was preferable to a recording machine in order to identify speakers and, rather than record everything, to selectively record only what was important. A human stenographer was also able to read back sections of the transcription on request.

However, the introduction of cheap and portable computer technology has now made it possible to transcribe meeting minutes directly onto a laptop. Traditional alphabetic systems can be adapted from handwriting to computer keyboarding, and combined with word processing software to expand input into readable text.  Advances in speech recognition software are now making it possible to dictate directly into a computer without any kind of intermediary coding or transcription.

Staff Meeting

I continued to find shorthand useful for taking personal notes, especially when I was taking university courses. Shorthand is still required for court recorders in the United Kingdom and is used for business in India. However, potentially efficient, instant and error free voice transcription systems could mean that even sophisticated transcription software could soon be as obsolete as Charactery.




Oct 23, 2015 9:58pm
I enjoyed this article, Lesley, since my first job as a teacher was to teach Gregg Shorthand and Typing to high school juniors and seniors. It was soon phased out as you article relates, so it was good that I went into Administration rather than being out of a job.
Oct 24, 2015 12:06am
Thanks, Pat. I think it is a shame that shorthand is dying. I am still proud of the shorthand skill that I gained and love the beauty of Pitman outlines.
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