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Despotic Characters: Researching Shorthand at the New York Public Library

What do Pliny the Younger, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Tom Wolfe have in common?

The phrase "they all knew shorthand," written in Gregg shorthand

Or in longform: they all knew shorthand.  Whether you call it stenography (narrow-writing), brachygraphy (short-writing), tachygraphy (fast-writing), or phonography (sound-writing), shorthand represents our quest to write at the rate of speech. Through multiple gifts over the years, The New York Public Library has gathered an outstanding and extensive collection of shorthand material. These items can help answer such wide-ranging questions as: What was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius like? Why are some of the lines in Shakespeare’s King Lear so weird? and How can I take faster notes in my classes and work meetings?

Ye Olde Shorthande

Forms of shorthand have been in use since Greek antiquity. One of the earliest systems is attributed to Marcus Tullius Tiro, a freed slave of the famous Roman orator Cicero. In order to record Cicero’s dictations, Tiro developed several thousand symbols to stand in for common words. Medieval scribes continued this system, called the notae Tironianae, or Tironian notes. They found the one-symbol-for-one-word exchange easier to read in a time when words were written with little space between them. Tironian notes eventually fell out of favor as their aura of secrecy and exclusivity became connected with runes and witchcraftnot a great association to have in the Middle Ages. The exception was the Tironian et, which remained a symbol for “and” until it was superceded by that crazy upstart, the ampersanditself a melding of the word "et" into one flowing character. The Manuscripts and Archives Division holds a number of digitized Renaissance and Medieval manuscripts, where you can spot many instances of the Tironian et.  This convention did not end with the era of scriptoria; as you can see in the Library’s Gutenberg Bible, printers cut sorts of Tironian et type to save time and space as well.

A page from NYPL’s Gutenberg Bible, Book of Numbers
A page from NYPL’s Gutenberg Bible, Book of Numbers. Four Tironian ets, highlighted, are used alongside the longform ‘et’ in the twelfth and thirteenth lines. A later owner has added a manicule, or drawing of a pointed finger, to note a particular portion of the text.  Rare Book Division.

The Fathers of Modern Shorthand

Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, written in Pitman shorthand
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, written in Pitman shorthand. General Research Division.

Since Tiro’s time, various shorthand systems have gone in and out of style; our collection guide lists 131 originating between 1569 and 1836 alone. Writers and reporters frequently adopted some form of shorthand, whether of their own devising, like Daniel Defoe, or following an established system, like Isaac Newton. Charles Dickens, himself a reporter before turning to fiction, claimed in an 1856 letter to Wilkie Collins, “I daresay I am at this present writing the best shorthand writer in the world.”  He learned Gurney’s system; in fact, NYPL has the very edition of Gurney that Dickens presumably studied. Dickens came to understand the very steep learning curve required by shorthand. It no doubt influenced the writing of his semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, whose titular character bemoaned the “procession of new horrors” and “despotic characters” of a system that was “almost heart-breaking.”

If shorthand lessons were part of your educational experience, then the names Isaac Pitman and John R. Gregg are probably familiar ones. These gentlemen introduced the two most popular English shorthand systems, with Pitman achieving greater popularity in England and Gregg in America. (If you take notes using a steno pad, you may have noticed it is “Gregg Ruled.”) They are just as important to NYPL, as materials pertaining to their systems form a key portion of the shorthand collection. Gregg himself was a donor, and Pitman was honored by the Library and the Isaac Pitman Shorthand Writers' Association of New York with a dedicatory plaque that has occupied the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room since 1913.   

The goal of any shorthand system is efficiency by reducing the amount of effort needed to write and thus increasing writing speed. Rather than the abbreviative method employed by Tiro, where symbols replaced words or common letter combinations, Pitman and Gregg are phonetic systems. Each symbol represents a specific sound, and these symbols are combined to form words. Letters that are unnecessary, either because they are not pronounced or easily inferred, are discarded.  Pitman and Gregg do employ abbreviations, or  “brief forms,” for commonly-used words like “please” and “which”oh, and “and,” of course! The more brief forms you use, the longer it takes to learn. Students can expect to dedicate years of study before achieving fluency in these systems.

Plaque dedicated to Sir Isaac Pitman, located in the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
NYPL plaque dedicated to Sir Isaac Pitman. Image ID 1813534.

Shorthand may seem quaint or outdated today, but Pitman and Gregg’s work was praised, studied, and supplemented through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Pitman was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1894, and his system was employed by playwright and shorthand enthusiast George Bernard Shaw. In the forward to Pygmalionwhich he initially wrote in Pitman shorthand Shaw reveals that the character of Henry Higgins was influenced by Henry Sweet, inventor of the Current Shorthand system. He mentions receiving postcards from Sweet that inspired the “pretty postcards in your patent shorthand” mentioned by Mrs. Higgins in Act III, as well as a manual for learning Current Shorthand that is part of NYPL’s collection.  

Shaw was so passionate about the benefits of a phonetic alphabet that he allocated funds in his will for a “Proposed British Alphabet,” to be selected by contest and used to publish his play Androcles and the Lion. The winner, a phonetic system dubbed Shaw’s alphabet or the Shavian alphabet, was praised for its higher legibility and economy of spacein comparison to the Roman alphabet which, proponents argued, would increase one’s speed of reading as well as writing. (These traits were, incidentally, also goals for the Times New Roman typeface.) James Pitman, grandson of Isaac, claimed that someone proficient in the Shavian alphabet could write 60-100 words per minute, and a rudimentary grasp was possible after only three to four hours of study. The younger Pitman seems quite devoted to the Shavian cause: Androcles and the Lion was dedicated to his nine years of support, and in the forward he even offers to organize circles of pen pals for those interested in practicing their Shavian.

George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, written in the Shavian alphabet on the left and the Roman alphabet on the right
George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, written in the Shavian alphabet on the left and the Roman alphabet on the right.  This juxtaposition emphasizes the space saved by the Shavian characters. General Research Division.

Like a proper Henry Higgins, Shaw specified that his play should be transcribed into his new alphabet with a “pronunciation to resemble that recorded of His Majesty our late King George V and sometimes described as Northern English.” One major complication for phonetic systems is the standardized spelling of wordssince each letter is based on a distinct sound, pronouncing a word differently would also change its spelling. This is less of a concern for personal note-taking, but when publishing an authoritative text, a single “voice” is neededso no American or Cockney accents here; sorry, Eliza.

Musical Shorthand

I sit at the piano and try to keep up with a flow of “Semiquaver, B-G; semibreve, A-flat  hold it four beats, no, six  crotchets!  F-sharp  no no no no F-sharp — and...B! Tar-tatty-tatty-tarrr!” — David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Reading David Mitchell’s compositionally inventive Cloud Atlas, I couldn’t get enough of the inter-war “Letters from Zedelghem” sections. They describe protagonist Robert Frobisher as he pursues employment with esteemed Belgian composer Vyvyan Ayrs.  (The storyline was a nod to real-life team Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius.) Illness prevents Ayrs from playing and notating music, so Frobisher acts as his amanuensis, frantically attempting to score music as it is quickly dictated by Ayrs. Frobisher may have appreciated NYPL’s musical shorthand books and pamphlets, held mostly by the Library for the Performing Arts, to move at a faster clip while serving as “V.A.’s sentient fountain pen.”

Rousseau's Dream, notated in White's musical shorthand
Rousseau's Dream, notated in White's musical shorthand.  Library for the Performing Arts.

Like those for English words (and French, German, Italian, etc.), various systems arose for quickly recording music. NYPL holds books pertaining to musicology, sequentialism, musical stenography, and other systems, most dating to the nineteenth century. Their authors adopted a variety of methods to streamline musical notation. Some employed relative scales, also known as the “tonic-sol-fa system.” Here, the key for a musical work is indicated by letter at the beginning of the piece. This letter becomes the “tonic” or “do” notethe first note of the key’s diatonic scale. The remaining notesre, mi, fa, sol, la, and tiall follow relative to the tonic. The traditional five staff lines are therefore not necessary, since the scorer need only indicate the position of seven notes, or their equivalents in different octaves. Musicography uses only one staff line (relying on note shape to distinguish the other notes in the scale), while sequentialism uses three. As a bonus, key signatures can also be discarded; instead, the reader infers the appropriate flats or sharps based on the tonic note.  

Notes and other symbols are also “new and improved” in these musical shorthand systems. Traditional notes often have multiple components: for example, the note head, stem, and flag of an eight note, or quaver.  Taylor replaces these with circles and dashes; White with letters; Sinn with up- and down-strokes that blend together like the phonemes of Pitman and Gregg shorthand. Some elements are even removed entirely. White and Sinn discard flats, preferring to indicate half-tones as sharps only, while De Stains considers rests optional.

Johann Strauss’ La Rosa Waltz, rendered in standard notation above and musicography’s shorthand form below
Johann Strauss’ La Rosa Waltz, rendered in standard notation above and De Stains' musicography’s shorthand form below.  General Research Division.

All of these compositional shortcuts produce sheet music that often doesn’t look much like sheet music. And while White promises that only “a few minutes of study” will bring you up to speed on his brand of musical shorthand, I’m guessing that full fluency requires more of a commitment. For approachability, I would recommend starting with Sinn’s A Self Instructing Method of Short Hand Musical Notation. Framed as a series of letters to his musically-inclined nephew, this pamphlet gives a solid overview of musical shorthand principles with helpful illustrations accompanying the text.

Shorthand Today

Poem for remembering Pitman’s phonographic rules, from the pamphlet Pitman’s Shorthand Rhymes
Poem for remembering Pitman’s phonographic rules, from the pamphlet Pitman’s Shorthand Rhymes.  An enterprising student has annotated the text with manuscript shorthand notes.  General Research Division.

Today, the instruction of shorthand has all but disappeared from classroomsKingsborough Community College is perhaps the only New York City educational institution to offer Gregg shorthand classes. Dennis Hollier recently defended the usefulness of shorthand for the reporter, and after watching videos of people writing by hand at 140 words per minute (240 words per minute with a stenotype machine), I can see the benefits. A big barrier to learning is the memorization of an entirely new alphabet, as well as the many brief forms of the main shorthand systems. If you would like to speed up your own writing, but do not want to commit to the training required of Gregg or Pitman, you could try speedwriting.  Speedwriting keeps more or less to the traditional Roman alphabet, but spells words phonetically and drops easily inferred letters.  It also uses a smaller number of abbreviations, such as underlining the end of a word to signify an “-ing” ending. You won’t achieve the kind of speed that’s possible with Gregg or Pitman, but you’ll be able to use what you’ve learned in much less time.

Even if you don’t wish to write in shorthand yourself, you may need to decipher it in order to pursue archival research. NYPL’s archival collections contain numerous documents written in shorthand: a Civil War soldier’s diary, a World War II-era German seaman’s notebook, a collection of George Bernard Shaw’s papers, and performance notes from a modern dancer and choreographer, to name a few.  One of the Library’s most noteworthy recent acquisitions, the papers of author Tom Wolfe, include Wolfe’s notes for books such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, taken in a form of Gregg shorthand.  As the number of people capable of reading shorthand decreases, these unique manuscripts practically become cipherssymbols for future research codebreakers to tackle.

Shorthand notes from the Tom Wolfe papers
Shorthand notes from the Tom Wolfe papers.  Manuscripts and Archives Division.  Top left: Notes from a December 6, 1978 interview with John Glenn in preparation for The Right Stuff. Top right: Interview with Edward Hayes, inspiration for the character Tommy Killian in The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Bottom: Research notes for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

If these words have piqued your interest in shorthand, then remember: Fortune favors the brave!  (A phrase written in shorthand around 100 A.D.)  Start with the 1935 guide to the Library’s shorthand collection, or browse over 1,300 subjects related to shorthand in our online catalog.

Selected Resources

Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Pitman shorthand
Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Pitman shorthand. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy begins at the bottom of page 44’s second column and ends at the top of page 45’s second column. General Research Division.

First image created from shorthand examples in the Gregg Shorthand Dictionary, Anniversary Edition and 5,000 Most-Used Shorthand Forms. All other images: New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.



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This is delightful. Thank you

This is delightful. Thank you!

This was so neat!

Thank you for such a fascinating article!

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