Writing is an unbelievably useful tool to record and communicate ideas. It is cheap, the paper it is written on can travel large distances and is lightweight, printing allows a single book or tract to reach a large number of readers, and the written word can even survive to find generations of new readers across centuries of time. Writing and books survived even after the invention of film, radio and TV, which are much more expensive to produce for the same quantity of ideas. Only computer storage and the Internet have turned out to be faster, cheaper and easier to reproduce and spread than the printed word.
However, written languages were not developed with the emphasis on speed. Writing was initially the craft of a distinct class of people, the scribes and the upper class, and they tended not to care how cumbersome their symbols were. Even the streamlined modern shapes of the Latin alphabet, developed for printing and a mass readership in the literate West, are not compact enough.
With ordinary, cursive handwriting the best speed of writing is about 35 words per minute (wpm). People, however, speak at about 150 - 180 wpm, so the scribes who needed to record important speech were faced with a physical problem of keeping up with what was said. As a result they developed alternative, quicker forms of writing, parallel to the usual full-blown form of writing (which is sometimes called longhand.)
The scribes of the Roman Empire attempted to solve the problem by making heavy use of abbreviations in their notes together with special symbols, based on the method of Tiro, scribe to the orator Cicero. Even Julius Caesar knew this system himself. To this day we still use their most common abbreviations such as e.g. (Latin for "for example"), i.e. ("that is" or "in other words") and etc. (et cetera, Latin for "and so on". The & symbol also comes from the form of the word "Et"). They also used simplified strokes which were faster to write than conventional letters. A system which uses simple symbols for letters is usually referred to as a shorthand or stenography (a word which comes from the Greek words for "close writing" or "compact writing"). If the symbols are simplified but still- recognizable letters of the alphabet, the system is more properly referred to as a system of speed writing.
Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897) of England developed a system of shorthand and first presented it in 1837, which was gradually perfected and later adapted for 15 languages. The system spread to the United States through the efforts of Isaac's brother Benn, who settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although it was not the only shorthand system in use, it did present a number of strengths which made it vastly popular and was learned by a wide audience of writers, office secretaries and newspaper, court and governmental reporters. It was an elegant system of taking rapid notes, but this skill faded away with the advent of pocket tape recorders which could faithfully record speech.
Pitman's system has a number of useful features:
* It is phonetic. Using very simple strokes of the pen, sounds are written down and not the letters themselves. The sound of the letters f ("cliff"), ph ("graph") and gh ("rough") are written exactly the same way, even though they may be spelled differently in different longhand words.
* Vowel sounds are optional and are written with small dots, dashes or other shapes next to the main strokes. This saves time in writing when the consonants alone make clear what the word is. In the majority of cases, the consonants alone can clearly identify an English word. With experience, the writer recognizes when it is safe to omit the vowels.
* The strokes used vary in sound depending on a number of rules. It matters whether the strokes are thick or thin and whether the first stroke of a word is above, on or through the line on the paper. Halving or doubling the length of a stroke is also significant (adding -T/D or -TR/DR/THR to the basic consonant, respectively).
* The system developed a large number of "short forms". For example, the letters "th" can represent two sounds (called "unvoiced" and "voiced" th). In Pitman Shorthand they are represented by a curved stroke similar to an open bracket: ( . The thin stroke ( represents the sound of "th" as in the words "thank" and "think", and in fact the single stroke is also used as a short form for these words. The thick stroke ( represents the sound of "th" as in the words "though" and "they"/"them" and is likewise used as the short form for those words as well.
Pitman's system has a large number of rules and short-form tricks (and for the sake of shape clarity, many exceptions to these rules!). These are not difficult to learn; anybody can learn them. But practicing the system is difficult because you have to remember all the rules equally, and instantly write the correct symbol for the right sound or group of sounds. You are, in effect, learning a totally new way to write, just as difficult as your struggles to learn to read and write when you were a child -- struggles which you have probably forgotten now that it is all "second nature" to you. Building up speed can be difficult, but not impossible. At one time, shorthand was universally taught to people who wanted to be office personnel. Some went very far with it indeed -- the world record for fast writing was with the Pitman shorthand system: 350 wpm during a two-minute test by Nathan Behrin in 1922 (according to the Guinness Book of Records).
Mention should be made that Pitman shorthand is not the only system of shorthand around. In the United States, Gregg shorthand had surpassed Pitman in popularity. Gregg works on a totally different plan: vowels have strokes of their own and vowels and consonants are written together in words which are continuous, cursive squiggles of lines, curves and loops. The thickness of a line is uniform, and the vertical position of a stroke doesn't matter so Gregg does not need paper with printed lines for reference. The Gregg system uses a standard steno-notepad ruling of 3 lines to the inch, compared to the somewhat wider lines in Pitman of 3/8 of an inch each. In Gregg, short and long arcs represent different letters, which may cause confusion if the size is miswritten or misjudged. In Pitman, halving or doubling the size of a stroke has a more intricate meaning which cannot be confused for a different starting sound. HOWEVER, Pitman has a similar point of confusion about thick and thin strokes, which represent close but distinct consonant sounds. These can be confused if thick strokes are miswritten as thin and vice-versa.
One system of speed writing is Forkner shorthand, in which the letters of cursive handwriting are written with simplified shapes. Vowels in most cases are dispensed with or shown by marks near the written consonants, and (like other systems) there is an extensive set of abbreviations in which single letters or symbols may represent entire words, all designed to avoid ambiguity.
Court reporters use stenotype machines, quickly recording sounds on a mechanical device operated by pressing several keys at a time.
I will not get into a war of words over which is the "better" system, but I will merely talk about the system I know. I will willingly link to Web-pages about any alternatives to Pitman.
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This page was last updated on: January 11, 2011
I wrote this page because I could find no other Web-page that explained Pitman Shorthand, just the odd business course offered here and there in the British Commonwealth. What do you think of this skill? You have two ways of giving me feedback, by signing in in the "guestbook" (which can be read by anyone) or by e-mail ("Send me a message") which is private.
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(April 2009:) Pitman for Geeks:Pitman for Geeks, a new web-page by Duncan McKenzie, talks about Pitman Shorthand and goes further than I did in explaining the elements of the method.
Keyscript Shorthand: Janet Cheeseman, a qualified instructor of Pitman, has devised Keyscript Shorthand, a shorthand or more correctly a system of speed writing using the regular alphabet but inspired by the Pitman schemes for short forms and abbreviations. She offers a course, now for A$120 (Australian dollars).
(April 4, 2007:) New Link for Discussion Forum: Chris Wright has set up a Web forum focussing on Pitman New Era shorthand. Everyone is encouraged to join and discuss Pitman over there.
(August 12, 2005:)Merchandise!You can buy "I Love Pitman Shorthand!" merchandise here. In theory, it is possible for me to make you ANY Pitman phrase on a T-shirt or mug if I open another Cafepress "store."
(May 10, 2005:)Pitman goes galactic! The science-fiction comedy movie THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY makes use of a stylized but readable Pitman 2000 shorthand to depict the Vogon language. A book describing the making of the movie reveals this Pitman use and offers movie stills. You can read Pitman phrases like "Demolition Order," "Presidential Release Form," "Information Deleted," and "Depressed? Try Destruction Therapy!" The Pitman Training institute in Britain takes the credit for creating Pitman text seen in the film.