The merits of shorthand in today's age

2020-11-30 @Languages

How much merit is there to shorthand systems today compared to say, 20/50/100 years back?

A shorthand system, in brief, is a systematic means to compact words/ideas/phrases from a full to a terser representation. Most of us exercise numerous contractions across our writing, typing or messaging, although typically in highly select use cases of no particular stratagem.

For instance, instead of ‘applicable’, one may write ‘aplbl’ as an example of a consonant based shorthand. Or ‘wd’ instead of ‘would’. Or ‘k’ in lieu of ‘okay’.

These are all contrived examples. A formal shorthand system adopts an entire systematic means of contractions within a language. Different systems exist, a handful of which I here list:

Shorthand systems saw greater prominence historically, before comfortable typing keyboards, before personal computers. As the old-fashion handwriting was widely exercised, so were shorthand systems.

Even in more recent times of cumbersome typing peripherals such as typewriters or early keyboards was there greater merit to shorthand. While specialists (ie secretaries) could achieve tremendous typing speeds, I imagine the feat was far less common for a layperson, not to mention the scarcer access to such devices.

It was only in the last twenty years that so widespread became personal computers and tractable keyboards that to achieve a 50+ word-per-minute typing speed is no unearthly ordeal.

In the English language, I can easily attain 80 words per minute at fairly low error rate. In other languages this speed severely diminishes, but so does the frequency of their use. Obvious.

Others, notably secretaries, attain over 100 wpm. And that implies verbatim typing, without contractions.

While most, myself included, employ the standard QWERTY keyboard layout, alternative layouts exist that make possible even greater typing speeds for some. These include the different variations of the Dvorak and the Cermak layouts, as the common cases.

The point is this. Even a speed of 60wpm approaches a certain threshold that the marginal benefit of shorthand begins to severely diminish.

At my speed, I can hardly construct coherent phrases in my head that quickly. And the speed suffices to annotate mostly anything I hear spoken; perhaps not at the preciseness of a court clerk, but at sufficient detail.

Many shorthand systems employ symbols rather than letters. The symbols may represent either phonetic sounds, such as the Japanese Hiragana/Katakana alphabets, or ideograms in spirit of the Chinese/Japanese Kanji.

Now, in contrast to these alphabets, being that it’s shorthand after all, the idea is to provide as minimalist of a toolkit of symbols as possible, minimizing the strokes.

Pitman shorthand is one of the more widespread symbolic-phonetic systems used over the last century and a half.

Sometime 100-120 years back, the playwright George Bernard Shaw employed Pitman to compose drafts of his plays that he later handed to his secretary for transcription. (Or so I learned in the preface to Pygmallion.)

Once adapted and assimilated into your writing, Pitman must become second nature. For the uninitiated, it can seem dauntingly inaccessible, as any symbolic alphabet might appear at first glance:

Pitman sample (Image compliments of Omniglot)

These days, I suspect the number of practitioners of Pitman doesn’t even reach one percent of the historical user base. I could be wrong.

Alas, for reasons of computerization, not only has the need for Shorthand plummeted, but many modern typists out there have lost the basic handwriting aptitude, be it not crudely executed and beset by typographical errors.

I’m hardly an exception. Although I really do try.

And since I do make a habit to handwrite quiet a bit, over a few years I’ve also employed, to a limited extent, a version of shorthand across both the handwritten and digital mediums.

For the handwritten, I use a combination of mostly Dutton inspired contractions as well as a small set of self-devised ideograms. Digitally, it is obvious that I only appeal to the alphanumeric system.

(Or perhaps someone out there actively takes notes with a stylus and has managed to successfully employ symbols).

Since 98% of my prose typing takes place in the VIM editor, I use VIM (insert-mode) abbreviations to immediately expand the shorthand to the regular form. The link roughly summarizes the method.

For the handwriting especially, I’ve experienced a severe increase in overall speed. Over time I’ve identified those language constructs of highest occurrence and gradually adapted or devised equivalent shorthand representations.

Most of such alphanumeric contractions comprise of one to three letters. And for longer words such as ‘necessary’, ‘particularly’, ‘independently’, or ‘differently’, the encodings really pay dividends.

The shorthand system you choose to employ, if any, can vary depending on your target language and environment. Roman Alphabet systems may lead to confusion when carried across languages. An artificial contraction in one may represent an actual word in another. A contraction may also appeal to a particular language feature that doesn’t conveniently adapt.

Ideogram based systems, on the other hand, seem more impervious to inter-language conflict. But they are tougher to adapt or devise. And they also impose a limit to the handwriting medium.

For this reason, I use a combination of both, although the alphanumeric heavily prevails.

Ultimately, I continue to experiment, diversify, and employ shorthand because it fascinates me. It holds both an academic and a practical appeal. Consider it … especially if you wield the pen a lot.

Sources referenced

Other links

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