In one of my first jobs after college, as secretary to the then managing director of Novello & Co, George Rizza (a distinguished bewhiskered gentleman), I was often called on to take dictation. With my legs crossed and tucked politely under my chair, a note-pad on my knee and sharpened pencil in hand, I’d focus my eyes on the blank lines before me, poised to capture the words about to spill from my boss’s mouth. After a few moments of pregnant silence, like the pause before the shot of a starting pistol, George Rizza would nod with a smile in my direction, then begin to talk fluidly and eloquently as though the intended recipient of his letter were in the room with him — more often than not a composer whose new work was about to be unveiled. I would scribble furiously, my heart pounding in my chest as I took each syllable that reached my ear and allowed it to pass like a code through the audio, mental and nervous flowcharts of my brain and down into my hand, instantly parsing the information and depositing it on the page as a symbol representing the phonetic ‘chunk’ that had reverberated on my eardrum just a split-second earlier. Over the course of a ten-minute dictation, Rizza’s well-considered words transformed themselves through my seated form from a barrage of sounds and syllables into a picture of pencil-lead marks, most of which were decipherable only by me.
As the longed-for final four phonemes arrived at my ear — yaw – sin – seer – lee, my head and hand flushing with relief — I would rush from my chair with as much grace as I could muster in my haste. Back at my desk just a few steps and seconds away, I would begin the process — sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating — of transcribing my scribble back into the meaningful and elegant prose that had issued from Mr. Rizza’s mind.
I had emerged a few years earlier with flying fingers from a three-month course at the Anne Godden Secretarial School in London, clutching a diploma declaring my typing and shorthand speeds: 100 and 150 words per minute respectively. Young Englishwomen seeking secretarial positions in the early to mid-1980s were expected to have respectable shorthand and typing speeds, given the traditionally underwhelming hunt-and-peck typing skills of their (usually male) prospective bosses. As was the trend in England at that time, I was trained in the Pitman method of stenography. (Stenography, meaning to write in shorthand form, comes from the Greek word stenos meaning “narrow” and graphē or graphie meaning “writing”.) Developed by Sir Isaac Pitman in the early 19th century, his is a phonetic system in which sounds rather than letters are represented — consonants by straight and semi-circular strokes in different hefts and orientations, and vowels (when needed) by dots, dashes and other marks. By the end of the 20th century, Pitman’s was the most widely used method around the world — it has been adapted for no less than 15 languages. Although still ubiquitous, especially in the UK, it has been superseded in the U.S. by the Gregg method, which is also phonetic but with more simplified strokes. Nowadays, a third system called Teeline has become the shorthand of choice for teachers of stenography in the UK; unlike Pitman and Gregg, it is a spelling- rather than phonetic-based method, and it is recommended in Great Britain by the National Council for the Training of Journalists.
Outside the office, shorthand was until very recently an inherent part of the jobs of court reporters or stenographers, journalists, and medical practitioners (although in the latter case, shorthand is more for the purpose of concise, compact recording than for swift transcription). However, with the advent of the stenotype machine in the late 19th century and more recently with the use of high-quality digital audio recordings, the court stenographer has effectively become extinct. (The contract of the last stenographer at the Old Bailey in London was allowed to expire in March 2012.) Add to that the ubiquity of portable personal computers, the universal ability and willingness to type fast, and the abbreviated new lingo of texting and IMing, and it only stands to reason that penned stenography has become something of a dying art. Many journalists still regard it as an inherent part of their trade, and whether it’s by means of Pitman, Teeline, Gregg, or an improvised personal language of one’s own devising, the skill of shorthand will probably endure in some form for as long as there’s a discrepancy between the respective speeds of speech and handwriting.