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The Different Systems of Shorthand

      Shorthand is a brief method of writing used to record human speech.  Today, most written shorthand systems write by sound (as opposed to the actual spelling of words) where there is a symbol for each sound.  In the past, some systems used arbitrary signs for individual words; no wonder they’re not in use today!

      There are hundreds of shorthand systems out there in a myriad of languages.  In English, the systems divide into distinct types:

      a.    Symbol systems such as Gregg, Pitman,  Thomas Natural, Century 21, and Eclectic Shorthand, where sounds are generally represented by strokes which are kept as brief as possible, making them faster to write than longhand,

      b.    Alphabetic systems such as Speedwriting, Stenoscript, Forkner, and AlphaHand, where sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet as well as a few symbols,

     c.    Hybrid systems, such as Teeline.  While Teeline is based on alphabetic characters, it appears to be much more like a symbol system since so little of each letter is written.  The Teeline system is popular in Great Britan but virtually unheard of here in the United States, and 

     d.    Machine systems which require a typewriter or a stenography machine to be written.  Today, computers can take machine input and transcribe it with amazing accuracy.

      The Gregg alphabet is based on the oval.  Size variations represent different sets of related sounds; connected hooks and circles represent the vowels.  Written Gregg has a forward slope and graceful forms much like cursive handwriting.

      The Pitman alphabet, which is older than Gregg, is linear in form.  Written Pitman looks geometric.  The circle and straight lines make up the basis of its alphabet.  Different pairs of sounds, represented by short and long strokes in Gregg, are represented by thick and thin strokes in Pitman.  (Do not forget that steel-tipped pens, the writing implement of the day, could easily produce thickness differences with variations in pressure on the pen.  In fact, Copperplate, Roundhand, and Spencerian Script—the methods of handwriting from back then when Pitman was developed—required thick and thin strokes in order to have the correct form and beauty so students of the time had adequate practice in controlling the thickness of their pen strokes.)  Pitman vowels are not connected to the shorthand outline and are indicated with dots and dashes, written after the outline is written.  Position of the outline (over, on, or through the line of writing) also indicates the initial vowel sound, reducing or eliminating the need to go back and place vowel signs to many outlines.  It also necessitated lined paper for writing.  But by being able to drop many of the vowel signs, greater speed is achieved.  Multiple forms of the same letter may indicate whether a vowel precedes or follows the first consonant.  As an example (and an over-simplification),  there are two forms of R, one is used when preceded by a vowel, the other when a vowel follows.  Pitman, being the first widely used and extremely popular shorthand system capable of high speeds, was copied and modified by many.  The Graham and Munson systems are examples of Pitman modifications.

      In the late 1800s, hot debates occurred as to which system—Gregg or Pitman and its variations—was “better.”  Both systems had their unshakable proof, mostly consisting of speed contest results.  In looking at these so-called proofs today, it is clear in many instances the decks were stacked in favor of one system over another.  Soon after the turn of the 1900s, the shorthand machine was developed by Ward Ireland Stone.  Claims of writing speeds over 500 w.p.m. on the shorthand machine were made.  We know today that human ears cannot even distinguish individual words at that speed so such claims become moot.  However, just to be safe, the pen writers of the day banned machines from entering speed contests.  Speed contests, on two separate occasions, were dropped for many years to prevent machine writers from possibly winning.  The dominance of the shorthand machine today is due to the ability of having its keystrokes transcribed via the computer for a quick turnaround of transcripts.

      At present, there are computer programs which transcribe human speech directly without the need for a human stenographer.  I expect, in the near future, computers will be able to transcribe human speech without the need for lengthy training periods (for the computer to recognize individual speech patterns, regional accents, and pronunciation differences) with amazing accuracy.  One would expect, as well, that, some day in the not-too-distant future, the cost of such computing capabilities will drop within reach of the average consumer.


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Gregg Shorthand Pitman Shorthand Speedwriting Shorthand