Stenography, the process of writing in shorthand, used to be a popular course in high school before recording devices and computers dealt it a death blow and it practically vanished from the educational scene. However, in recent times, the ancient art of shorthand, a system of rapid writing using abbreviations or symbols for words and phrases, has made a limited comeback. Thanks to the current popularity of texting, “words” such as u, r, b4, l8r, ppl (people), and pov (point of view) are creeping into student papers.
Teachers in New York State may be distressed by this turn of events but putting it in the context of shorthand’s long and interesting history may serve to ease the anxiety through distraction.
Although stenography can be traced backward in time to the ancient Greeks and Romans, its more modern form can be dated from the revival of learning during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in 16th century England when Dr. Timothy Bright wrote a shorthand textbook in 1588 and dedicated it to his queen. Variations on Bright’s method followed until the 19th century when the English educator, Isaac Pitman, developed a shorthand system based on sound. He classified the sounds of language into basic groups and used simple abbreviations for writing words as they sound. For example, deal, may, and knife, were written as del, ma, and nif. His method was first published in 1837 in a book entitled, Stenographic Sound Hand. Pitman’s system of phonetic writing soon became known as “phonography” and was introduced to the U.S. by the prominent American radical and anarchist, Stephen Pearl Andrews.
While he was in London in 1843 seeking British financial support to abolish slavery in Texas, he was given a copy of Pitman’s book. Andrews saw in Pitman’s phonography a fast and easy way to teach illiterate blacks how to read and write. On his return to the U.S., he opened the Phonographic Institute in Boston to promote Pitman shorthand. Andrews believed that phonography was more than a “new mechanical approach to writing” and viewed it as a “bridge to freedom and enlightenment.”
In 1844, Augustus F. Boyle and Oliver Dyer joined forces with Andrews and, over the next five years, they wrote over 30 editions of phonography course books and manuals. In 1847, Andrews relocated his stenography business to New York City where he continued writing and publishing works on philology, phonetic printing and language teaching. According to Andrews’ biographer, Madeleine B. Stern, Andrews promoted Pitman’s shorthand “not to make men rich, but to make them free.” His plan to fight illiteracy with phonography did not work out as he had hoped and he soon saw shorthand become the tool of commerce and a linchpin of journalism and the legal system.
As interest in shorthand grew in New York State, books modifying Pitman’s system appeared. In 1858, Andrew J. Graham published The Hand-Book of Standard or American Phonography and in 1866, James E. Munson published The Complete Phonographer. Eliza B. Burnz published Burnz’ Phonic Shorthand in 1873 which was followed by William W. Osgoodby’s Phonetic Shorthand in 1877. A fierce competition broke out between the various shorthand systems with each one claiming it was better than the others. By 1884, there were 42 shorthand schools in New York State. Sixteen were in New York City, four in Buffalo, and two each in Albany, Troy and Syracuse, with one school in 16 other communities.
Indeed, shorthand had made a triumphant arrival in New York State; however, new technology such as the typewriter and the phonograph would seriously threaten the survival of the ancient art, but that is another story for another time.
It’s been gr8 to share with u. thx and bfn.