Is the art of shorthand dying?

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

Media caption,
Pitman shorthand expert Mary Sorene demonstrates how it works

For more than 2,000 years people have used shorthand to make note-taking quicker and more reliable. It's a skill that has weathered being banned by a Roman emperor and associations with witchcraft, but could technology finally kill it?

To the uninitiated it looks like gobbledegook, an alien language with an indecipherable alphabet. But the squiggles and lines on the page are actually a version of English.

Shorthand is a method of quickly writing down information. It has roots in the Senate of ancient Rome and allows the annotation of more than 200 words a minute by top exponents. It enables secretaries to transcribe meetings and dictated letters. Newspaper reporters can get down details of court case proceedings or interviews.

But, in an age of electronic voice recording and instant tweeting of events, is shorthand becoming obsolete?

Image source, Alamy

The UK vocational education group City and Guilds says there's been "a steady decrease in the number of people taking shorthand courses over the past 10 years". Although it's reluctant to release what it says is commercially sensitive information, it adds that "technical solutions", such as voice recording, are the "main cause for the decline".

"Honestly, shorthand? Who still writes that stuff?" one blogger has written. "Who even reads it? The art of shorthand doesn't just have one foot in the grave, it has the other planted firmly on a banana peel."

But shorthand is still mandatory in some professions. The National Council for the Training of Journalists insists trainees achieve a written speed of 100 words per minute to pass its diploma. It remains "indispensable for any court reporter, and a vital skill for journalists in all sectors who need an easily accessible and permanent note of every conversation in their working day", the organisation insists.

It's three times quicker to type out shorthand notes than to listen back to audio recordings, says Mary Sorene, secretary of the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters. It's also illegal to make audio or video recordings of most proceedings in UK courts, although this type of coverage has been allowed in English councils since last year.

"Shorthand will be included in NCTJ qualifications as long as there remains a demand for it," says the organisation's chairman, Kim Fletcher.

But there are several types. The NCTJ uses the Teeline system. It's based on a combination of outlines representing individual letters. Some sounds, usually vowels, are removed to aid speed. For example, the word "father" will involve writing simply a letter "f" and an elongated "t" representing the "ther" sound.

Teeline is now the most popular system in the UK. Formerly, the most heavily used form of shorthand was Pitman, which dates back to the 19th Century.

Image source, Wikimedia
Image caption,
The Teeline alphabet

In business, shorthand has traditionally been seen as a secretarial skill, but, according to Sarah Austin, operating director at Page Personnel Secretarial and Business Support, it's becoming more important "at the senior end of the jobs market".

"The role of the personal assistant and executive assistant has evolved and there are more business assistants, which means the need to record detailed accurate minutes from board meetings, client pitches or confidential meetings is more important than ever," she says.

Shorthand can be a tedious skill to learn. It requires practising until a decent word speed and level of accuracy is achieved, which usually takes several months. TV presenter Piers Morgan, a former Daily Mirror editor, has urged trainee journalists: "Work hard, play hard & do your Teeline!"

The initial stage of Teeline training is relatively simple, involving learning the basic letters, with users moving on to extra abbreviations. For instance, the letter "x" on its own can denote the word "emergency" and an "s" on its own can denote the suffix "-shall" or "-cial".

Image source, PA

Students learning Teeline often experience the same pattern, improving rapidly before struggling to get past 80 words a minute. This is often referred to as the "80 plateau" and some have suggested it's a barrier because that's about the fastest speed that longhand can be written.

Pitman is said to involve more initial learning, as it includes special "logograms" - short forms - for common words.

Alison Berglas, who runs the teaching website Teeline Online, thinks it's "rubbish" to say shorthand is dying. "It's useful in business for the large number of meetings executives have to attend," she adds. "It's also incredibly useful for students, who can use it for note-taking during lectures. You don't need to record the whole thing before transcribing it, which is very time-consuming. Shorthand notes can't go wrong, unlike recordings, either."

But attitudes to study have altered, Berglas says. Pitman takes about a year to learn, but as it's quicker to grasp the basics of Teeline there are even one-day "masterclasses" offered. "One businessman was surprised that it was so simple," says Berglas. "He didn't realise it wasn't tech-speak or a completely different language."

Image source, Getty Images

Berglas's clients include companies and councils. "When I watch The Apprentice, I see Karren Brady taking notes about the group she's observing," says Berglas. "I just want to get beside her and tell her that shorthand would make her job much easier."

The first fully formulated shorthand system, it's widely agreed, started in 63BC when the philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero wanted a reliable way to cover debates in Rome's Senate. Marcus Tullius Tiro, a learned freeman living in Cicero's house, obliged, inventing what became known as Tironian Notes.

This method was officially adopted, but shorthand had a difficult time. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian forbade its use after 534 AD, as it had come to be seen as a secretive code, encouraging subversion. It became associated with witchcraft and magic during the early medieval period and largely disappeared.

Image source, iStock
Image caption,
The first use of shorthand was to transcribe the speeches of the Roman orator Cicero

In 1180 the monk John of Tilbury published an abbreviated word system, prompted by the late Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket's interest in preserving sermons.

In the 15th Century, the discovery of a book of psalms written in Tironian Notes in a Benedictine monastery led to a renewal of interest in shorthand. By 1588 physician Timothy Bright had devised an English system consisting of lines, circles and half-circles. The 17th Century diarist Samuel Pepys used a form of shorthand.

Several other variations developed until Isaac Pitman, from Trowbridge, Wiltshire, came up with a phonetic system, Stenographic Sound-Hand, in the 1830s. It was exported to the US, becoming the dominant system there.

Irish-born Robert Gregg was 18 when he invented his own phonetic system, Light-Line Phonography, in the 1880s, which gradually supplanted Pitman in the US.

In the 1920s Emma Dearborn, an instructor at Colombia University, started Speedwriting, allowing more than 20,000 different words to be written once the user has learned 60 rules and a list of about 100 brief forms.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
December 1917: Shorthand classes for London and North Western Railway staff

Lots of other systems have come along, but the most popular in the UK today, Teeline, was first published in 1968 by shorthand teacher James Hill, who wanted a system that was easier for beginners to grasp than Pitman. Some users of Pitman argue that Teeline is inferior, limiting exponents to lower word speeds.

Mary Sorene worked as a shorthand writer at the Old Bailey for 11 years from the early 1970s. At one point she could write 210 words per minute using Pitman.

"People, even when I was training, were saying there's no use learning it, as they thought it wouldn't be long before words could be turned into text automatically," she says. "Well, we're here 54 years later and we're still waiting for that to appear. I don't think shorthand has died at all. I think it will be going on long after I'm carted off."

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