By Jack El-Hai (Regular Contributor)
A century ago, hundreds of thousands of people around the world regularly used shorthand. Secretaries, stenographers, court reporters, journalists and others depended on the elaborate shorthand systems that Isaac Pitman and John Robert Gregg developed in the nineteenth century, and countless schools and publishers seized the business opportunity to train them. Talented practitioners could write at speeds up to 280 words per minute.
Two distinct skills comprised shorthand proficiency. One was the ability to quickly and accurately set down spoken words using the shorthand systems, and the other was mastery of the translation of passages of shorthand into standard written or spoken language. To teach the second skill, publishers produced printed shorthand texts that students could use to practice translation.
These texts grew increasingly complex, and apparently so did their uses. In 1903, the publishers of the Gregg method released the first novel entirely rendered in shorthand — an 87-page edition of Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer, a longtime editor of The Saturday Evening Post. Little read today, the novel unfolds in epistolary style, a comfortable format for students used to taking down correspondence. But few students would have required such a long exercise in translation, suggesting that some may have read this novel in shorthand for edification or pleasure (or to show off).
Ten years later, a couple of shorthand short stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving and “The Great Stone Face” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, appeared in print. Then, starting around 1918, additional literary editions came out, including shorthand versions of Alice in Wonderland, The Sign of the Four, and such short stories as “The Diamond Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, and “A Descent into the Maelström” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Because Gregg shorthand is a phonetic system in which the strokes represent sounds and don’t correspond with letters or words, consuming a novel from the squiggles and lines on the page must have offered a unique reading experience. The strokes for the word raise, for example, are the same as the strokes for raze.
New technologies of the past 75 years — dictation machines, audio recorders, and personal computers — have decimated the ranks of shorthand users, and the various systems might now qualify as endangered languages. (The Gregg system has not been updated since 1988.) In libraries and digitized collections, however, shorthand novels live on. Even though few people can now read them, these literary translations display a strange and persistent beauty.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland (Gregg shorthand edition). The Gregg Publishing Company, c. 1918.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of the Four (Gregg shorthand edition). The Gregg Publishing Company, c. 1918.
Price, Leah. “Diary” [essay on the history of shorthand]. London Review of Books, December 4, 2008.