Thursday 5 May 2011


There’s an interesting piece on the BBC news website about stenography.

Actually, I think there’s some confusion in the article’s headline. The topic it reports on is actually, as I understand it, not stenography as such but more precisely stenotypy.

“Stenography” is a general term that covers all forms of shorthand — handwritten shorthand systems such as Pitman and Gregg (the systems that are, or rather were, predominant in the UK and the US respectively), as well as machine shorthand. “Stenotypy”, on the other hand, refers specifically to the machine shorthand produced with the aid of a “stenotype”, which the COD defines as
n. 1 a machine like a typewriter for recording speech in syllables or phonemes. 2 a symbol or the symbols used in this process.

As explained in the article, and in greater detail in Wikipedia, the stenotype keyboard has a mere 22 keys, yet encodes the spoken material a full syllable at a time. This requires “chording”, i.e. the simultaneous depression of several keys. The left hand records the onset consonant(s), the right hand the coda consonant(s), and the thumbs the vowel. Many sounds are recorded by arbitrary key combinations, e.g. initial d as TK, initial m as P plus H but final m as P plus L, “long E” () as AO plus E, and so on.
All English shorthand systems, as far as I am aware, including stenotypy, encode the pronunciation of the words direct, rather than via the traditional orthography. This means that all shorthand writers have to be experts in instant on-the-fly phonetic transcription — though of course they do not have to pay attention to the way the given speaker says the word on the given occasion but rather to the citation form.

Both Pitman and Gregg, and also I assume stenotypy, require nonrhotic speakers to record the symbol representing r in words in which rhotic speakers use r. In Gregg, which I learnt to 120 wpm as a teenager, stork is written differently from stalk (though they are homophones for me), but the latter is written identically to stock and for that matter stoke (though they are not homophones for me).

However there are also numerous shortened forms (logograms, “briefs”) which make the relationship between sound and shorthand spelling less direct.

Oh dear. The Wikipedia article goes on to tell us
Some court reporters use scopists to translate and edit their work. A scopist is a person who is trained in the phonetic language, English punctuation, and usually in legal formatting.
How often do we have to say it? A writing system is not a language. English is still English, no matter whether you record it in traditional orthography, in morse code, in IPA, in shorthand, or as a .wav or .mp3 file. Converting ordinary spelling into one of the other forms is not translating it into a different language.


  1. I remember when searching for "stenography", many of the hits were specifically for "machine stenography"; nowadays, it seems as if many people use "stenography" to mean only, narrowly, stenotypy.

    And I'm also amused when someone looks at some text I wrote in shorthand or in the Shaw Alphabet and they ask what language it is and I reply "German" or "English". "But I can't read it!" Yes, but the different "encoding" doesn't change the fact that it's German/English; it's not a "Shavian language" or a "Shorthand language" any more than, say, Serbian-in-Cyrillic and Serbian-in-Latin (or Kurdish-in-Arabic and Kurdish-in-Latin, etc.) are separate languages.

  2. I took the liberty to correct the article. I hope it's ok now.

  3. I'm intrigued to see your Wikipedia gif has -ur- for FORCE in 'board'. I guess they use that combination for CURE as well, and A U R for NORTH, but that's abbreviated in 'shorthand', and I can't see any evidence for CURE in the article either. I wonder what the competing conventions (Wikipedia "theories") do with these splits.

  4. Odd too that they have syllabic L in 'example' but E R in 'paper'. And I suspect that these conventions are more fixed than claims of "on-the-fly phonetic transcription" would incline you to believe. But then look at the examples "are , our, hour" for Initial R and " is , his" for Initial S. Is it worth doing any more corrections, nul?

  5. Actually, I'm not a real Wikipedia editor, I only do this when I see something blatantly wrong. My only contribution to the article was just this correction – anybody can do this, all it takes is to click the 'edit' tab, change the text and save. Correcting an image is a more complex matter though. The gif was created (and released into the public domain) by Gary D. Robson for his "The Closed Captioning Handbook".

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