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History of shorthand 

Go to Library Collections on shorthand to find details of libraries that have special collections of materials on shorthand.

A brief history of shorthand

Shorthand has been described as "any system of rapid writing using symbols or shortcuts that can be made quickly to represent letters of the alphabet, words, or phrases". (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary describes shorthand as "a method of speedy writing by means of the substitution of contractions or arbitrary signs or symbols for letters, words, etc."

Other terms used for shorthand are,

brachygraphy (1590); short writing, (from the Greek word meaning 'short')

stenography (1602); narrow or small writing,(from the Greek word meaning 'narrow')

tachygraphy (1641); swift writing (from the Greek word meaning 'swift').

The characters used in shorthand systems tend to be based on two main approaches,

script or cursive; these systems use letters, signs or symbols derived from normal handwriting or print forms based on the Roman alphabet.

geometric; these systems use arbitrary alphabets of signs or characters which may be derived from a geometric pattern such as a circle or ellipse. The signs may be angular or they may follow the slope of normal handwriting.

Similarly, there have been two principal abbreviation approaches;
orthography; systems based on the way words are spelled and
phonography; systems based on the way words sound or are pronounced.

Some shorthand systems have used the orthographic approach but most of the systems from the eighteenth century onwards have used the phonographic approach.

'In The Art of Shorthand' (1832) Gould wrote that “Shorthand is found to depend, not on a formidable array of marshalled hieroglyphics, but upon the active manoeuvring of a few select signs”. In the long history of shorthand the many systems that have been published may be measured against this statement. It helps to distinguish between the serious advances and the shorthand curiosities.

Shorthand - ancient and modern

The art of shorthand has a long history going back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Greek stenographic symbols have been found on the so-called “Aeropolis Stone”, ca. 350 bce. Xenophon is said to have used shorthand to write down the memoirs of Socrates.

The earliest recorded shorthand system, by Tiro of Rome, dates from the first century bce. Tiro was a liberated slave of Cicero whose speeches he recorded. It was a form of abbreviated longhand which both Julius Caesar and the Emperor Titus are said to have used. His symbols were known as the Notae Tironis or Notae Tironienses, and were preserved and used by monks during the Dark Ages. This ancient method remained in use for many centuries.

The Greek and Roman systems consisted of short symbols which were portions of letters of ordinary writing. They were short or long strokes and curves written in different directions. They were either detached or joined together at acute or obtuse angles or embellished with circles or hooks. Special symbols indicated different sounds or syllables. A word was represented by its most important sound or letter, or by its initial letter with a final syllable added. There were additional signs for the various inflections.

Towards the end of the twelfth century in Britain, a monk, John of Tilbury, published his ‘Nova Ars Notaria’; this was essentially an abbreviated word system but it begins the transition to methods using alphabetical symbols.

With the publication of Timothy Bright’s system of ‘Characterie’ in England in 1588, the modern era of shorthand began. In Europe Gabelsberger and Stolze in the early nineteenth century devised important systems but the contributions of Isaac Pitman (1837) and John Robert Gregg (1888) have been particularly significant for writing shorthand in English.

Several other British authors have also played important parts in the development of shorthand systems. Willis, often described as the ‘father of shorthand’, established the alphabetical method in 1602 and influenced later writers including Shelton (b. 1601), whose system was used by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary (1659-1669). Byrom in the early eighteenth century designed a system using a system of diacritic vowel signs which were written in various positions. This method was later developed by Taylor (1786) and by Pitman (1837).

Both Pitman and Gregg used a phonographic approach, words are written according to their sound instead of abbreviated spelling. They are both ‘geometric’, in that the consonant letter forms derive from a specific geometric pattern. Pitman used a crossed circle, and Gregg used a crossed ellipse. These decisions have given the characteristic ‘shape’ to each of these systems. Gregg shorthand is written on a regular slope similar to forward written longhand, whilst Pitman shorthand is angular. In both cases the result is an entirely new and unfamiliar sign alphabet which has to be mastered and practised.

The nineteenth century was particularly productive with many anonymous systems; the shorthand scene was enlivened by the controversy between Pitman and Malone.

Their fierce debate concerned the merits of their respective systems and methods of approach. In the Preface to Malone’s pamphlet (1889), ‘Script v. Pitman, the great debate’, he explains his intentions “to expose ... the methods used by Pitman to impede the progress of a new rival system of shorthand writing …” and calls upon Pitmanism “to surrender the monopoly it seized in the days of the venerable rushlight and the primitive stagecoach”.

Reginald Dutton published his 'Dutton’s Shorthand in One Week' in 1916. This was a significant contribution in that he drew attention to the importance of the sounds of R and L and the letters, T, D, N and S, in shorthand system design. This approach influenced the design of 'Troab Shorthand' (1946), published in 1951 by Roy Tabor (Troab-Script shorthand).

In 1968 James Hill explored a stream-lined way of hand-writing based on work study principles, and ‘discovered’ Teeline. This method uses mainly simplified forms of longhand (script) letters, and words are abbreviated according to the way they are spelt, although this is not consistent. Several letter signs require two pen movements to write.

Library collections of shorthand books and materials

A number of libraries have special collections of books and archive materials on shorthand. The serious student and researcher will find these library collections very useful sources of information about shorthand and its historical development.

Important!

If you know of other collections of shorthand materials please send an email with details

UNITED KINGDOM

The British Library

Location

96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Tel: 020 7412 7676

Access

General enquiries about the library collection
reader-services-enquiries@bl.uk
Admission to use the reference collection is by prior permission;
Admissions, Tel: 020 7412 7677  
reader-admissions@bl.uk

Website

https://www.bl.uk/

The Carlton Collection

Location

University of London (Senate House Library), Senate House, Malet St. London, WC1E 7HU
Tel: 020 7862 8470

Name

Carlton, William

Periods

16th century - 20th century

Creator

Carlton, William, 1886-1973

Access

Unrestricted for purposes of private study and personal research within the controlled environment and restrictions of the Library's Paleography Room.       Contact the University Archivist for details.
enquiries@shl.lon.ac.uk

Website

https://www.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/

Chethams Library

Location

Chethams Library, Long Millgate, Manchester M3 1SB
Tel:  0161 834 7961
Fax: 0161 839 5797

Content

History of shorthand. Includes John Byrom’s library collection and the John Harland collection.

Access

Access to the collections is free, but prior application to the Librarian is required, by telephone, fax or email.
librarian@chethams.org.uk

Website

http://library.chethams.com/

Exeter Central Library

Location

Castle Street, Exeter, Devon EX4 3PQ
Tel: 01392 384 206
Fax: 01392 384 208

Content

Includes the Pocknell collection.

Access

Apply to the Library Manager, by letter, telephone, email or in person. The Pocknell shorthand collection is held in the West Country Studies Library (housed at Exeter Central Library). The online catalogue of this collection may be accessed from the website.

Website

https://www.devonlibraries.org.uk/web/arena

Glasgow Libraries

Location

Glasgow Libraries, Information & Learning.
The Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow G3 7DN
Tel: 0141 287 2999 (enquiries)
Fax: 0141 287 2815

Content

Includes the Donald Purchase (shorthand) 400 volumes.

Guildhall Library, City of London

Location

Aldernanbury, London EC2P 2E
Tel: 020 7332 1868
Fax: 020 7600 3384

Content

History of shorthand.

Access

Apply to the Principal Reference Librarian.

Website

https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

Incorporated Phonographic Society

Location

Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH
Tel: 020 8684 9984
Fax: 020 8684 9984

Content

Books about or printed in Pitman’s shorthand, General history of shorthand.

Access

Apply to the Administrator, by letter, telephone or email.

Website

http://the-ips.org.uk/

National Library of Scotland

Location

George lV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW
Tel: 0131 226 4531
Fax: 0131 622 4803

Access

Apply to the Librarian.
enquiries@nls.uk

Website

https://www.nls.uk/

St. Bride Printing Library, London

Location

Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8EE
Tel: 020 7353 4660
Fax: 0207583 7073

Content

Manuals and periodicals on shorthand (about 3,000 items).

Access

Apply to the Librarian, by letter, telephone, email or in person.
stbride@corpoflondon.gov.uk

Website

http://the-ips.org.uk/

The Pitman Collection

Location

Library and Learning Centre, University of Bath, Claverton Down, Bath, BA2 7AY
Tel: 01225 826826
Fax: 01225 826229

Periods

19th-20th centuries, predominantly U.K.

Creator

Sir Isaac Pitman and his grandson Sir James Pitman.

Content

A collection of printed, manuscript, audiovisual materials and artefacts; includes over 7300 monographs and serials on the history of shorthand.

Access

By arrangement with the University Librarian.
Tel: 01225 826084
library@bath.ac.uk

Website

http://www.bath.ac.uk/library

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

The Leslie Collection

Location

Rider College, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, NJ
Tel: 609-896-5000
Fax: 609-896-8029

Name

The Louis A. Leslie Collection of Historical Shorthand Materials.

Periods

1710-1970's.

Creator

Louis A. Leslie (ex-Chief Editor of the Gregg Publishing Co.)

Content

ca. 12,000 books and periodicals on shorthand, typing and the history of shorthand education; contains examples of every important shorthand ever invented (and many unsuccessful systems).

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