Three boxes of records with an open steno graph notepad on top.

A Brief on Shorthand

Genesie Miller History, Research

The English language as written in this stenographer’s pad from 1930.
The English language as written in this stenographer’s pad from 1930. (Series 30481)

People often use the word “shorthand” to refer to any manner in which they shorten their writing in order to write faster. For example, SMS systems on mobile phones in the late 1990s and early 2000s had strict character limits, charged fees for each message sent, and character input required multiple presses of keys on a very small keypad, which led users to develop abbreviations, acronyms, altered spellings, and emojis to communicate within these technological limits. However, shorthand also refers to structured writing systems that are designed to efficiently capture the sounds in a language to increase writing speed. Many languages have these shorthand writing systems: East Asian languages, such as the hanzi of China and kanji of Japan, have abbreviated cursive-like forms called grass scripts that reduce the complexity of the written characters to a few brush strokes. In European Classical antiquity, the Greeks had several shorthand writing systems variously called brachygraphy (brachys is Greek for “short,” graphein is “to write”), tachygraphy (swift), and stenography (narrow). Stenos is the etymological origin for the modern stenographer, a person who records written transcripts of courtroom proceedings. As an institution that houses government archival records, the Utah State Archives comes across court transcripts written in English shorthand systems.

Shorthand written on lined paper from 1930.
This stenographer seems to have written a shorthand cheat sheet on the inside cover of his 1930 steno pad. He mentions the Pitman, Gregg, Osgoody, and Graham shorthand systems, along with a guide to his own phonemic writing. (Series 30481)

A stenographer must record court proceedings that mirror exactly the events that occurred in court, and the transcripts that stenographers file as the official record must be readable, reproducible, and accurate in the event that the record must be reviewed later. Obviously, contemporary stenographers have access to digital recording devices, PCs, and other means of capturing the court proceedings that they can review and transcribe. Prior to the advent of these digital or mechanical devices (such as the typewriter), stenographers had to handwrite their transcriptions. However, typical cursive writing styles were still not efficient enough to keep up with the pace of human speech. To fill this need for speed and accuracy, Sir Issac Pitman (1813–1897) and Robert Gregg (1867–1948) each designed their own writing systems to write the English language in quick, easy to write symbols. Pitman and Gregg shorthand became the two primary English language shorthand writing systems. Pitman shorthand and Gregg shorthand ignore the conventions of English spelling in favor of reproducing the phonetic (sound) of English. Although both are phonographic writing systems (also called phonemic orthography), there are slight differences between the two. Pitman used thin pen strokes to represent “light” sounds like p, and thick strokes to represent “heavy” sounds like b. Gregg shorthand opted to use the length of lines, rather than line thickness, to distinguish between “heavy” or “light” sounds.

Shorthand was an essential tool for anyone engaged in a profession that required them to transcribe dictation. Stenographers, secretaries, journalists, and researchers conducting fieldwork were expected to know and use shorthand. Certain healthcare professionals also wrote their patient notes in shorthand. Perhaps this is the origin of all those cliché jokes about bad physician handwriting? These shorthand transcripts were intended to be temporary: shorthand notes were transcribed into longhand (aka normal writing) that would become the copy saved for the record.

Like cursive writing, shorthand is a largely obsolete writing style that has been replaced by other scripts and writing instruments that are more efficient and readily available. Shorthand users are largely limited to enthusiasts who want to learn out of interest rather than necessity. No one here at the Utah State Archives is able to read these shorthand stenographer notes from Uintah County’s Fourth District Court, so we are only able to read the longhand table of contents and appreciate the stenographer’s doodles. Even if we cannot read them, these notepads document the history of legal processes and techniques used in legal record-keeping in Utah and the rest of the US.

Shorthand notes from 1904 that feature a doodle of a man on a horse.
A (bored?) stenographer’s doodle in his shorthand transcripts from a case from 1904. This sketch is believed to be a man riding a horse with a bird flying overhead. The mount appears to be in need of an orthopedic surgeon to take a look at that neck. (Series 30481)