I envied my mother. She could speak Dutch and she could write Pitman’s shorthand. Of course my envy wasn’t strong enough to do something about it. If I had made the effort I could have acquired those skills. I did learn to type from her and that is a skill which is still useful in this computer age.
Pitman and Gregg brought to the world extremely beneficial writing systems which, sadly, are now little more than historical curiosities. Technology, in the shape of the sound recorder, has pretty much killed them off together with the profession of stenographer.
Advances in audio recognition, as foretold in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, has already made it feasible to dictate with a relatively high degree of accuracy into word processing software (such as the one I am using now) and it requires little imagination to see this being incorporated into the ubiquitous mobile phone. Sooner rather than later, these dreadful devices will be able to generate accurate transcripts of whatever was spoken in their range and even to identify different speakers.
And yet these ‘shorthand’ writing systems should be resuscitated. The reason for their demise is that they were not recognised for what they are – fully fledged efficient writing systems rather than a mere tool for the professions of stenographer and reporter. Part of the problem may be in the nomenclature. ‘Shorthand’ suggests a cut-down version of the real thing: note-taking only fit for transcription into the polished finished product.
Figure 1
An example of Pitman’s Shorthand
Writing using the Latin alphabet, or indeed any other writing system developed alongside the natural history of languages, is very inefficient. It takes a long time to form each letter or ideogram and each word. English is particularly difficult with its variety of spellings. Arabic is better, having generally simpler strokes and optional vowel points, a characteristic shared with the Pitman’s and Gregg’s systems. Shorthand is phonetic. It can be written comfortably at the speed of speech and quicker than typing. It should be easier for children to learn than Latin script and also make learning second languages easier. There is, I contend, a very strong case for adopting one or other of the systems as our means of written communication.
Adopting something new is not easy when there is an extensive infrastructure supporting the existing method, but it is not impossible; in fact it happens frequently. In new technology, over a very short time, there have been many changes of format and means of data storage. It has not taken long for the lingua franca of science to switch from Latin to English: in law the transformation is still in progress. Governments often change the spelling system of their language, almost at a stroke. Monetary systems change even more rapidly – some horrifying so when bunches of noughts are chopped off during hyper-inflation.
The transition to a new writing system is best undertaken through children.
Figure 2
The Initial Teaching Alphabet
The attempt to teach children through an intermediate phonetic writing stage, the initial teaching alphabet (ITA), was unsuccessful. It was devised by Sir James Pitman, the grandson of Sir Isaac Pitman, the originator of Pitman’s shorthand and was tried for a while in UK schools. The letters of ITA[1] were even more complex than ordinary letters but were recognisable since they were derived from them. The system fell down because the alphabet was of little value outside school, took longer to write and the children had to learn standard writing and spelling eventually.
The problem with ITA is that it was a compromise – a phonetic system that teachers could understand and learn easily. There would have been no problem in teaching his grandfather’s system to children. It would be a useful way of representing the sounds and words they use in their language without having to worry about capital letters, bizarre spelling and the enormously difficult task of combining strokes accurately into letters. They could read and write early and more freely, fluently and creatively.
Even though they would have eventually to learn the way silly grown-ups read and write, unlike ITA, the skill they had learned would still be immensely useful to them. The new generation would create a pressure for signage and literature that they would be happier with. It would initially have a supremely ‘cool’ advantage for young people in that grown ups would not have a clue what they were writing about or reading unless they too learned the script.
It may be useful to examine the way that technology has affected the way we read and write.
Nowadays many people write more with a keyboard than a pen. The only time we take up a pen is to sign our name – which need not actually consist of recognisable letters. Increasingly this method of signature is being replaced by pin codes and fingerprint recognition devices. When illiteracy was rife many people signed with their thumbprint; does this mean that technology is making us less literate? I do not think so, but technology may make us more dependent. We should still be able to write if we do not have a computer, mobile phone or other piece of electronic kit to hand.
Figure 3
The Pitman Consonants
Interestingly, changes in technology have made Pitman’s shorthand more difficult to write. Pitman’s relied on different thickness of strokes to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced consonants and different vowel marks. This was quite easy to do with a nib pen or a pencil but impossible with the ubiquitous ball-point. Gregg’s shorthand does not have this problem – voiced consonants are distinguished by the length of the stroke, although this does make Gregg’s less compact than Pitman’s.
If Pitman’s were to be generally resuscitated, there may be an incentive to produce a pen which is capable of responding to different pressure and make thicker strokes. I think, in any event, that we want to move away from the ball-point we know now. The types of pen and pencil I used half a century ago at school were made of easily re-usable or bio-degradable materials – wood, graphite, clay, a metal nib. The casing for ball-points is almost invariably hard plastic. They represented the archetypal throw-away society. We need to move into a post-throw-away society as quickly as possible. A new type of pen with more capabilities but using more environmentally friendly materials might not be a bad idea.
The human-machine interface of the new system would be different – but could be much easier. Multi-point touch sensitive screens are coming into use soon. In the same way that we use all our fingers (well some of us do) to type efficiently on a keyboard, perhaps we could use ‘assign’ different fingers for different types of stroke. This clearly needs a lot of experiment and multi-disciplinary design. There should be a closer relationship between the way we write on paper and the way we interact with machines.
Machine transliteration between the new writing system and existing text would not be difficult to achieve. Translation between languages is not easy because of differences in syntax and inflection and non-exact correspondence between vocabularies. Homonyms would be the main challenge in machine transliteration. Optical character recognition should be easier if there are fewer types of stroke and less complexity in their linkages.
This does not require a huge initial investment. It just requires a kindergarten class to pilot the idea.