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Statue of an Ancient Egyptian scribe.


Shorthand is a system incorporating the use of symbols or abbreviated words to form a new written language to substitute for a traditional language using full-length words, and by doing so this saves the employer of shorthand time.


Throughout the years, hundreds of different shorthand systems have been developed, and all have their own unique rules. Many of the modern systems use single letters to represent similar sounding whole words. For example, the letter C would represent the word 'See', when written in shorthand. Other systems use pictures to represent words. For example, a small circle, with a larger circle encompassing it would represent the phrase 'Around the world'. The picture method of shorthand involves much more memorization and practive for the stenographer, whereas the letter substitution system is more intuitive and would be less challenging to master.

Ancient History

Dating back to the inception the written word, there is archeological evidence of shorthand. From civilizations like the Greeks and Romans scribal texts and artifacts have been recovered that depict their efforts at abbreviated language. In fact, for the Greeks and Romans shorthand became the normal writing style; leaving hieroglyphics for ornamental scrolls and decoration on temple and tomb walls. The term stenography was created to refer to the art of shorthand, therefore a person who employs shorthand may be labeled a stenographer. The Ancient Egyptians placed of the scribe on an elite level and training to become one was met with extreme rigor. The scribe would, "Begin to study at five years of age. The rigours and harsh training of these young apprentices was well documented. Note the connotation of the egyptian word for teach, seba, which also means to beat." (Kreitzman) The concept of Stenography (not the writing itself) was remediated throughout history in Eastern and Western cultures. Caligraphy has evolved as the formal, correct, way to write letters and words, whereas everyday handwriting is arguably a form of shorthand. Much like the alphabet itself, Stenography can be seen as a digital interpretation of an analog idea.

During the Han Dynasty (207BCE – 220CE), the Chinese developed two forms of rapid writing known as xingshu (running script) and caoshu (grass script). Still used today, the different strokes in the former are combined and others left out whereas in the latter the entire character is written in one continuous stroke. This has made these forms of stenography incredibly difficult to read without extensive training. Over the years there has been an effort made to standardize these forms of Stenography but they have been met with a deal of opposition. This can be seen as a pop and whistle of this technology. No matter how much training in the writing one can have, every piece transcribed will be inconsistent with the others in the basic structure of the physical construction of the words themselves. Unlike using the Western alphabet (which is standardized) to make a group of manuscripts, using xingshu and caoshu is a lot riskier because the message will fundamentally change from scribe to scribe.

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Mandarin Caoshu.

The ancient Romans also used shorthand and Stenographic techniques but in different ways. Vital military messages would be written in shorthand and, combined with Steganography (meaning "covered writing" (Dunbar), they could successfully be transmitted as far as the messenger could travel. The information would be tattooed onto the bald head of the messenger and, after the hair grew back, they would travel with a fake message to their destination. Upon arrival their heads would be shaved and the true message would remain intact.

Modern Shorthand: Pitman, Gregg and Teeline

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Gregg Shorthand.

There are many forms of shorthand being used in contemporary Western culture. However, the three most used are Pitman Shorthand, Gregg Shorthand, and Teeline Shorthand.


Sir Isaac Pitman in England developed Pitman Shorthand in 1837. Over the years it has been altered and adapted into over 15 different languages, but is used mostly by secretaries in the UK and America. Acting as a remediation of the Chinese scripts, Pitman Shorthand relies heavily on the thickness, length, and placement of each stroke. This, again, has made it hard to decipher; even among other stenographers because the width of each “letter” can be contested by anyone. Because of this inconsistency, this style began to loose favor after the invention of the mini tape recorder. "It is perhaps the most rapid shorthand system and is favored by many court and convention reporters. The Pitman system makes use of shading (a line heavily drawn has a meaning different from that of the same line lightly drawn) and of differences in slope and position on a given line; it is geometric in outline and is difficult to master but makes possible very great speed." (Colombia Encyclopedia, Glatte)


John Robert Gregg invented Gregg Shorthand in 1888. To this day Gregg is primarily used in the US, although it has been adapted into some other languages. Unlike the Pitman style that has characters assigned to every letter, Gregg is phonetic. For example, form, elephant, and rough would all use the same stroke for the F sound even though they are spelled differently. Gregg "published a popular system of business shorthand that is still in use today. Its outlines are curved and natural, resembling those of ordinary script; need for lifting the pen was eliminated as much as possible, so that a cursive motion is used; there is no shading, but variation in length of line indicates variation in meaning. The outlines were scientifically worked out for simplicity and writing ease." (Colombia Encyclopedia, Leslie)


Developed in 1968, Teeline shorthand was developed by James Hill, who was originally an instructor of Pitman shorthand. This system is mainly employed within the confines of The United Kingdom, and is primarily used by journalists. The Teeline system is similar to its predecessors: Pitman and Greg. (Glatte)

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Stenography Machine.

The Downfall of Shorthand: From Stenography to Phonography

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After the invention of recorded sound, the use of shorthand went into decline. Stenography was replaced by Phonography, and later its function was replaced by the Phonograph. As the primary function of stenography was to transcribe live testimonial, tools for recording have been able to achieve this with more efficiency, and without human error. Eventually stenography evolved into phonography, which was a more advanced version of the former. It was considered "a natural method of writing all languages by one alphabet, composed of signs which represent the sounds of the human voice;...brieder than any other system, and which speakers can be followed verbatim." (Daily Atlas) As stenography involved mechanical dexterity, and was thought to utilize the intellect, it was taught to students, and used by teachers. (Porcupines Gazette) It attempted to capture and edify aspects of oral expression, and evolved to focus on the vocal element as opposed to the spelling of the word. (Gitelman) This was due to the fact that there was no way at that point to capture certain intonations of the speaker. Although spelling out the word was a way to capture the content of vocal expression, there was no way to capture the manner in which speech was expressed. The logic of capturing oral expression was extended into the subsequent invention of the Phonoautograph. This device was invented by M.L. Scott and purported to visibally fix sound on a tablet. This was a tool to capture the actual vocal expression, and to represent it visually.

However, the difference between this and stenography lies in the fact that the sound waves were not mediates a symbolic system of letters. At the same time the sounds were able to be read as they were visually distinct, and thus they were represented. Human voice was able to be distinguished from the sound produced by musical instruments. The acoustic vocabulary of tones and frequencies were employed to show how different sounds were represented visually on the tablet. This is a remediation of stenography as it attempted to capture the ephemeral sonic event, and to represent this event visually in a semiotic system. However, stenography employed writing, and the language used was the alphabet. It relied almost exclusively on the human labor of the stenographer. The Phonoautograph relied on the interface between sound and machinery much like the camera did with visual material substrate. There was an attempt to transcribe the graphic representation of sonic waves back into words, thus mimicking the process of stenography, however, this proved to be impossible, as all words looked visually different. “It is difficult to imagine the importance of the discovery, whether in respect it be in respect to the unimpeachable accuracy of the process, the entire absence or trouble and expense in reporting any articulate sounds, or the great saving of time, and exhausting labors of parliamentary reporters.” (Porcupine’s Gazette)The Phonograph extended the notion of converting oral experience into evidence.

Today we can see how the ancient esteemed profession of the scribe has been recreated into the court reporter. Just like in antiquity, the court reporter has to be extremely skilled with their tools in order to be accurate enough to transcribe every word said while maintaining a high level of ethical pride. Their tools are also designed to copy information as fast as possible making their machine a remediation of the physical motions of the hand.

We can also see traces of the ancient Roman's strategic techniques in contemporary international espionage and information transferring. Vital data has been transfered hidden in other data streams using encrypted languages and forms of digital shorthand. The Cold War can be seen as an example of the measures governments went through in order to relay a message. The United States invested millions of dollars in Stenographic techniques and technologies in order to counter Soviet transmissions and intercept some information for themselves. In fact, this war can be seen as built upon nothing more than the fear and proper usage of Stenography.

Works Cited

Kreitzman, Anita. History of Shorthand. Kings Park, NY: National Court Reporters Association, 2007.

Dunbar, Bret. A Detailed Look At Steganographic Techniques and Their Use in an Open-Systems Environment. Washington, DC: SANS Institue, 2002.

Macanair, John. Stenography Compendized. Glasgow: British Library, 2007.

shorthand." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. (September 26, 2010).

Glatte, H. Shorthand Systems of the World, 1959.

Leslie, L. A. Story of Gregg Shorthand, 1964.

The Daily Atlas, Volume: XII; Issue: 127: Boston, Massachusetts, 1843.

Porcupine's Gazette:The Marvels of the Nineteenth Century- Sound Recording Itself; Volume: LXII; Issue: 3189;: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1861.

Winston, James. Stenography Completed. London: London, 1727.