Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2771: SHORTHAND

by Andrew Boyd

Today, to the point. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Anyone who texts will tell you our written language wasn’t designed with brevity in mind. We think and speak far more quickly than we can write — or type with our two thumbs.

Throughout history, various forms of shorthand have been used to speed up the process of writing. Examples can be found in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese texts. The Romans developed a form of shorthand for recording speeches that was used well into the Middle Ages.

parts of a speech penned by Pres Wilson

Modern English shorthand traces its roots to Victorian England. According to historian Leah Price, the early eighteen-hundreds saw inventors championing their own special versions of shorthand. Shorthand was invaluable for court recording and parliamentary reporting, but it had other creative uses as well, like plagiarism. Clergy were known to appropriate sermons from other clergy, and theatergoers pilfered lines from the latest stage plays. Think “filmgoers and a handicam,” says Price. Shorthand also provided a means to capture the exact words used by adversaries in a debate. Its diverse uses led the early spread of shorthand to take place through a countercultural movement — a movement of “spirit-rappers, teetotalers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, [and] anti-tobacconists.”

Isaac Pitman photograph

In 1837, Isaac Pitman published a new method of shorthand in the pamphlet Stenographic Soundhand. It made improvements on other methods, but it gained popularity in large part due to Pitman’s salesmanship. To Pitman, shorthand wasn’t just a practical tool; it represented the “dawn of religious freedom,” the “dawn of political freedom.” He capitalized on advances in the British postal system, creating a vast network of shorthand enthusiasts. Writing became less arduous which in turn encouraged more correspondence. Pitman proudly proclaimed that when using shorthand, “friendships grow six times [faster than] under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.” The cult-like devotion to Pitman’s creation eventually faded, but not the creation itself. It remains the most widely used form of shorthand in the U.K., and the second most widely used in the U.S.

Of course, the advent of recording devices has eliminated much of the need for shorthand. It’s still required in many courts of law. And it’s useful for closed captioning of live television programs. Overall, though, its use is waning.

Except in the case of texting, where new, shorter means of expression are constantly being introduced. Vowels are disappearing. Numbers have become words. We face an onslaught of acronyms. Strings of punctuation marks express happiness or a wink. But unlike the carefully crafted shorthand of old, the shorthand of texting is a free-for-all. And it’s interesting to ponder. As the shorthand of texting evolves, will it someday become completely indecipherable to those who don’t text?

text that says OMG RU MSSNG W/ME...

I’m Andy Boyd at the UH, where we’re interested in the way IMW.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

L. Price. 2008. Diary. London review of Books. 30(23), 43. See also: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23/leah-price/diary. Accessed February 7, 2012.

Shorthand. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/shorthand.htm. Accessed February 7, 2012.

The picture of Wilson’s shorthand is from the Library of Congress. The picture of Isaac Pitman is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

This episode was first aired on February 9, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.