One of the forgotten byways of history is brought to our attention by Leah Price in the LRB:

By the time David Copperfield appeared in 1849, the days and nights that Dickens spent studying an 1824 reprint of a 1750 manual must have felt doubly galling thanks to the publication, in 1837, of Isaac Pitman’s new method, Stenographic Soundhand. Like Esperanto a generation later, shorthand spread through a counter-culture of early adopters – spirit-rappers, teetotallers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists. Pitman himself associated shorthand with ‘the dawn of religious freedom’ and ‘the dawn of political freedom’ (verbatim transcription, he claimed, prevented parliamentary reporters from privileging favourites). His empire grew with the British postal system. In 1840, he condensed his method into a ‘Penny Plate’ the right size for sending through the new penny post. A network of ‘gratuitous correctors’ (Pitman’s language veered between pedantry and hucksterism) encouraged autodidacts in the provinces to send one another their shorthand exercises to be marked; later, chain letters called ‘ever-circulators’, composed in shorthand, were sent through the imperial mail. …
Pen pals in Africa and Australia found one another through the classified pages of shorthand magazines that juxtaposed new material with reprints of published fiction: Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in Eighty Days, all the Sherlock Holmes stories and even an unabridged run of the Strand Magazine. The depositories of copyright libraries are littered with Victorian shorthand editions of A Christmas Carol, Aesop’s fables, English-Welsh and English-Hindi dictionaries, the Old and New Testaments, and biographies of Calvin and Galileo. Pitman’s Shorthand Weekly (later called the Phonetic Journal) featured ‘serials and short stories by well-known authors; miscellaneous articles; illustrated jokes and anecdotes; and prize competitions’. On 17 August 1901, it offered a prize for the best biography of Isaac Pitman by a colonial subscriber. Submissions, naturally, were accepted only in shorthand. You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.
And then everything changed….

Fascinating stuff, and “gratuitous correctors” is a good name for those of us who work on Wikipedia articles today. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. No kidding about Wikipedia. I’ve been in a frenzy of Wikiputtering lately (mostly on missing bits of local history and loading many photos of NRHP in Hawai‘i into the Commons and then linking them). I have to remind myself constantly, “This is not my problem. Leave it for someone else.”

  2. I have an old Pitman at home, it’s lovely.

  3. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.

    Isn’t it the case that most activities except novel-writing and nipper-raising were idealistic, distributed and male until around 1910-1920? When it was discovered, for instance, that female typists, being no better than they should be, were willing and cheaply available?
    I highly recommend a book by the sociologist Eva Illouz, her 2004 Adorno Lectures published as Gefühle in Zeiten des Kapitalismus (translated in 2007 as Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism). There she discusses, among many other things, the first in-house interview-based studies in America on organizational structure and worker satisfaction. I think it was at Ford Motors, around 1927. The results showed that there was too little concern shown by managers about employees, too much infighting among the latter, and so on. This was the start of all those management technique writing careers at the Harvard Business Review.
    The revelation to me – Illouz claims that most people in her field who know about the original study don’t know this either – was that almost 100% of the employees interviewed were women. It just goes to show, as Mabel would say.

  4. hsgudnason says

    And Ethel Merman took notes in shorthand, and then used them later as evidence when she wanted to challenge a director’s change of mind!

  5. There are actually people around who think shorthand symbols should be included in Unicode. As this post explains, that is a pretty perverse idea. There is already a proposal to put Shaw’s English alphabet into Unicode. Babelstone has a piece on Tibetan shorthand contractions.

  6. One would have thought that stenographers, people who touch- type shorthand symbols onto a roll of paper at the speed of normal speech — they always appear in courtroom drama reading back the testimony — would be a dying breed, but i saw a woman doing it at a televised Committee of the House of Commons the other day. When I was a student I worked in the holidays with the stenographers at the H. of C. In those days (mid-’70s) they were only men. They worked mostly at night, like the House. I think it’s a great skill.

  7. I highly recommend a book by the sociologist Eva Illouz
    Whose name I came across just last Saturday in the book I’m currently copyediting… and whose Wikipedia entry I edited (added birth date and Hebrew name, eliminated some PR verbiage)!
    *cue spooky music*

  8. There are actually people around who think shorthand symbols should be included in Unicode.
    Or, When Manias Collide!

  9. All my life, there have been four abilities I’ve wanted (I won’t tell you about the fifth one): a. Use shorthand, b. read lips, c. call a cab by knuckle-whistling, d. blow my nose without a kleenex. I still might get somewhere with a. and b., but the other two are hopeless. I envy your knowledge of shorthand, JJ, if indeed “working with stenographers” implies that you have such knowledge.

  10. John Emerson says

    My sister, like me and most of my family by our age, is partially deaf, and she believes that she learned to read lips somewhat without knowing it. She now has difficulty having a conversation in a dark room, and has concluded that that’s why.

  11. As might be expected, some of these have been scanned. The Psalms. The New Testament. Gulliver. Phonographia, sef Llaw fer yn ol trefn mr. Isaac Pitman, wedi ei chyfaddasu i’r iaith Gymraeg. But there is also the usual bad metadata, with both the subject “Shorthand” and specific edition information suggesting a phonographic edition when the book isn’t.
    One of the minor plot points in the award-winning “Blink” Dr. Who episode was that Larry Nightingale did shorthand. You can see it in his notebook about 06:07 into this clip.

  12. Or maybe that’s the total clip length, in which case about half-way through.

  13. I’ll note that Omniglot, which is on the LH language resources list, has a page on shorthand.

  14. Shorthand systems generally seem to aim to be phonemic (which of course they generally seem to call “phonetic”) and this tends to unsuit them for multilingual purposes. The standard Cherman system seems to be among the most adapted for other langwidges, but (like Pitman) it also features a light/dark stroke, and the pens I mostly use don’t really support that feature.
    Also shorthand systems seem to be made out of work, and I am made out of lazy. Otherwise…

  15. In the US, court reporters have abandoned stenotype machines, whose keyboards use chord-like combinations to represent sounds
    Not entirely. As recently as last summer we used a a court reporter who used a stenotype machine. That was bankruptcy court, true, but stenotype machines are definitely still out there.

  16. David Marjanović says

    And nobody has yet mentioned that Pitman shorthand is one of the ancestors of Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics?

    I still might get somewhere with a. and b.

    You want to read lips? In Germany?

    Shorthand systems generally seem to aim to be phonemic

    There are more logographic ones out there. I was told about the one that was once used (and maybe still is, no idea) in the Austrian parliament: Industrie was something N-shaped and Wirtschaft a vertical stroke across four lines that took less time to write than to pronounce.
    But then, ordinary touch-typing is fast enough for most former applications of shorthand, if not even all of them.

  17. You want to read lips? In Germany?

    Aber klar doch! And what does Germany have to do with it? Imagine being able to understand what people are saying to each other when they think you can’t hear, say in a business context. Also when they’re absolutely sure you can’t hear, as in a loud bar. You could synchronize your contributions to a discussion with what your “lead” is thinking, if he moves his lips silently to communicate with you. If you’re of a conspiratorial temperament, you and your bridge partner could trounce the opposition, or you could team up with a kibitzer at a card game when he can see the other hands. The possibilities are multifarious.

    ordinary touch-typing is fast enough

    The point is being able to take copious notes when there’s no laptop around. Suppose you’re a reporter and the power fails. How do you keep track of what all the officials say when you interview them? Think minimal! Lip-reading ability is highly advantageous because very few people have it, and most people don’t suspect that others do – apart from the deaf, and not all of them can lip-read (whether lip-reading should be taught at deaf schools has been a bone of contention in different countries at different times).
    John’s description of his sister’s difficulty having a conversation in a dark room is very interesting. It’s clear that in order to understand each other we are all reliant, to different extents, on different inputs in addition to “mere speech” or “mere printed words”. I suspect that a pre-competence in lip-reading may be more widespread than it would first seem.

  18. It’s clear that in order to understand each other we are all reliant, to different extents, on different inputs in addition to “mere speech” or “mere printed words”.
    Very true. This is also why it is much more difficult, in my experience anyway, to communicate in a foreign language over the phone rather than in person.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Aber klar doch! And what does Germany have to do with it?

    Well, then maybe people up north move their jaws when they speak, like Thhhony mblAAA does. (Was amazing to watch on TV.) Or maybe they at least do their vowel-rounding exo- instead of endolabially (that is, by actual lip rounding instead of tongue retraction or something). That’s not done where I come from.
    And that’s where English differs, even without the elocution lessons Blair took. It takes a lot of power to make an almost convincing [w] endolabially, so nobody does it; the apical-alveolar /d t n l/* are easier to articulate when the jaws are farther apart than the neutral position; the same holds for /θ ð/ if you articulate them dentally, and trivially so if you do it interdentally. (As soon as I found out that it’s possible, I switched to dental out of sheer laziness. Interestingly, I can’t hear the difference.)
    * Also present in northern, but not even central, German.
    Similarly, the Spanish rr never sounds right unless you push your lower jaw forward just for the occasion. I was awestruck when I finally noticed. It’s very easy to see.

  20. David Marjanović says

    This is also why it is much more difficult, in my experience anyway, to communicate in a foreign language over the phone rather than in person.

    In my experience, it’s instead because the other person can’t see your mimics and thus automatically assumes you understand everything, so you have to wait for them to finish and then have to ask for a repetition (and then another). That takes lots of time.

    It’s very easy to see.

    When a native speaker speaks, I mean. And if you look. It took me years to get the very idea!

  21. michael farris says

    Random notes:
    I used to have my own shorthand system (when I was in journalism) symbols came from a variety of sources including an alphabet or two I created on my own, my idea was that any phoneme (loosely applied) was a single stroke and there were a lot of ligatures, abbreviations and substitutions, something like “De se De d Nk h nOn” was ‘they say they couldn’t have known). I wasn’t as fast as a trained stenographer but I was a lot faster than most note takers I knew. On the other hand I needed to transcribe while the interview was fresh in my mind, notes that had been sitting around a few weeks were _very_ hard to figure out.
    I have real world experience with deaf people and I can say that full comprehension through lip-reading is kind of a mythical skill. Conscious or unconscious lip-reading can be a valuable secondary skill but most people even after intensive training aren’t very good at it (and are better with familiar people and/or contexts which indicates that a lot of it is applying knowledge that doesn’t come from lip-reading per se). I’ve known deaf people whose families thought they were great lip-readers and comparing what the hearing family members said vs what the deaf person understood was illuminating and depressing. True my experience is mostly in Poland (and Polish has got to be one of the worst languages to try to lip read as everything happens inside the mouth). But I’ve never come across evidence that the situation is markedly different for other languages.
    A skill I’ve long wanted (as a touch-dominant kind of learner) is Braille, but I heartily dislike the Braille system (I find Moon type to be much more plausible but it doesn’t have much of a following or materials).

  22. When I started losing hearing in my fifties, a hearing analyst told me most people don’t know how much they lip-read. I told her I had recognized that I lip-read in my teens and she looked at me as if she didn’t believe me. I added that I recognized many movie-stars by their mouths rather than their eyes.
    Actually, its only a partial skill that supports hearing rather than substitutes for it, like telepathy. No, I don’t read minds, but when minds are open and transmitting, they can support or contradict what the speaker is saying. And when I mention telepathy, its very noticable when people shut their minds in self-defence.

  23. G.S. I envy your knowledge of shorthand, JJ, if indeed “working with stenographers” implies that you have such knowledge.
    God, no. We did xeroxing in the back. It was a great summer job; my best moment at the House of Commons was when I peed in the adjacent urinal to Tony Benn’s.

  24. Depressingly, AJP, Benn is still around spouting (sorry) his provocative-to-get-attention nonsense.

  25. The last thing I saw was about a kind of rucksack he’d invented that you could sit on while you were waiting for the bus. It seems a bit cumbersome to me.

  26. Lip-reading and facial cues are a big deal for me when I’m comprehending (or trying to comprehend) a language other than my native English… Understanding Italian over the phone or Russian on Skype with a slight delay in the video is way tougher than it seems like it ought to be!
    On a side note, did you know that infants already know some of the visual cues to vowel sounds by the time they’re 2 months old? Two-month-olds can’t really even hold up their own heads, but they know that /u/, /i/ and /a/ look different and can match them to the correct video. Kids amaze me!
    (There’s a paper about infants’ sensitivity to lip-rounding, mostly, here if you’re interested in the technical details:

  27. On picture 6 of JJ’s link to a short BBC report on Tony Benn’s inventions, I found this:

    Benn offered his “seat-case” invention to Virgin boss Richard Branson, and even gave him an advertising slogan – “Virgin gives you a seat from your home to your destination”. He hasn’t heard back yet.

    I know “get back (to you/me)”, and “answer (back to you/me)”, and “heard (from you/me)”, but heard back for “had a reply”? A useful expression, but somehow it seems strange to me. I can’t believe it’s originally British.
    The more I repeat it, the more familiar it seems. Is this how language is learnt? That’s my current shirt-sleeved hypothesis, at any rate: overlapping sound patterns (“phrases”) in motivational contexts -> imitation and observation of phrases, one’s own and those of others, in self-motivating contexts -> no clearly “referential” semantics. An immediate payoff of this hypothesis is that it explains everything about language. It also provides a sufficient reason for politicians, sacred scripts and (some) bloggers. Kleist, in a famous essay, called it “Die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (The gradual construction of thoughts while speaking).
    This matches up with CL’s information about the ability of 2-month old babies to recognize different sounds and their labialities. I would take issue only with CL’s use of the word “know”, as in “they know that”. Surely these babies are demonstrating a competence. The idea of “knowledge” just injects epistemological noise into the issue.

  28. Yes, Grumbly Stu is right… I don’t actually think that the babies consciously ‘know’ the correlations between speech sounds and the visual information they match them up with. I (and other developmental linguists, I think) tend to use ‘know’ as shorthand for longer, but more accurate phrases like ‘demonstrate competence with’, ‘differentiate between’ or ‘show sensitivity to the correlation between’… I’ll try to be more precise next time. 🙂

  29. marie-lucie says

    “I haven’t heard back (from X) yet” seems totally familiar to me (living in Canada).

  30. “I haven’t heard back (from X) yet” seems totally familiar to me (living in Norway).
    No, but for me it was so unremarkable that I didn’t notice it. It’s certainly acceptable Britspeak.

  31. Paul: Depressingly, AJP, Benn is still around spouting (sorry) his provocative-to-get-attention nonsense.
    I don’t know whether you were in Britain in the mid-seventies, Paul. In those days the really depressing thing in British politics was “Sunny” Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister who later claimed that the thing he was most proud of was not interfering with the British system in any significant way. Tony Benn was about the only thing that kept me sane then. He isn’t an attention-seeker, to my knowledge. He does come from a very long line of English parliamentary radicals and his mother was a well-known feminist. Like all politicians not every idea he had was right. I’ve no idea whether he’d have made a good PM, but I expect he would have been better than what we were stuck with, namely Heath and Thatcher from the Tory benches, and Wilson and Callaghan from Labour. The period when Benn was significant were a dismal time in British politics, but that wasn’t his fault. He’s intelligent, he’s a pro, as far as I know he’s honest, and he’s got a good heart.

  32. David Marjanović says

    “Heard back from” is familiar to me, too, living in teh intart00bz… 😉

  33. I have no idea if I’ve heard “heard back from” before, but it didn’t register as unusual, at least.
    I guess learning to read lips might be neat, but I think there are other lip-skills I’d rather learn.
    Too much work vs. being too lazy sounds all to familiar. Hence my lack of languages and a ph.d. (As well as several other ‘things’ that would be expected of me at my age.)

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