Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Shorthand: a language on its own

on June 21, 2015

Marguerite, the American girl, also studied various other things on her own.  One day, in one of our free study hours, I observed her doing her homework. She was writing something strange. It was not English or French. It looked rather a bit like Arabic, very flowing and curly, but ran from left to right, while Arabic does the opposite. I could not stop myself from finding out what this strange language was.

“Meg, is this Arabic?” I inquired. “No,” she replied. “This is shorthand.” And that was how I discovered the world of note-taking using a man-made writing system.

Just as typing — and I mean typing on a typewriter, not keyboarding — has become extinct,  shorthand too is on its way out. Today, with a voice recorder embedded in our cell phone, we don’t even need shorthand any more. But once upon a time, some people came up with their own system of noting down what people said as fast as it was spoken. This skill obviously was mostly used by secretaries and journalists, who would then need to transcribe those notes into longhand (normal handwriting) or typed sheets as soon as possible. It all started in antiquity but by the 20th century, there remained two main systems, the Pitman shorthand, invented by the man of the same name back in 1837; and the Gregg shorthand, invented by Mr. Gregg in 1888. As newer inventions always improve on older ones, eventually, Gregg shorthand became the predominantly used one.

Extract from A Christmas Carol, in Gregg shorthand

Extract from A Christmas Carol, in Gregg shorthand

Basically, the idea is to note down sounds, not words. In other words, you are not concerned about spelling at all. Secondly, many sounds that are similar are written down in one way. For example, the short /i/ sound and the long /ee/ sound are all written as a tiny circle. Thirdly, the writing is very smooth and flowing, allowing the hand to move fast. In this aspect, I must say Arabic is quite close. It records only consonants and long vowels, and the reader is left to his own devices to figure out what the short vowels are supposed to be. The letters are also quite smooth and flowing, and therefore, it is no surprise that many of my later university classmates were able to take notes very fast in Arabic.

But coming back to that aha moment when I discovered a brand new language… A language unlike any other I’d read so far! I was immediately hooked. I had to learn it! I asked Meg whether I could borrow her shorthand textbook once she was done with it. She was such a darling. She immediately agreed, and even wrote down her address in the US for me to mail it back to her once I was done with it.

When I came home with my new treasure a couple of weeks later, I was a bit disheartened to find that Papa already knew what shorthand was. Ah, well, Papa was “I-Know-All” after all. Moreover, he predicted that I would be “3 points hot” (30% enthusiastic) for a while then forget about it. And at first, it did look that way. I spent hours practicing the first few lessons. Then, school work took over, and then summer fun did that too, and the book lay forgotten. But with a month left of summer, and with Papa’s mocking prediction still ringing in my ears, I suddenly remembered the shorthand book. And I spent every single waking hour practicing the skill. By the end of summer, I was done! I was able to mail the book back to Meg, who had by then returned to the US.

Today I see a similar passion for new learning in my third daughter. Alas, so few children of this generation get enthralled by a new language or skill. ‘Tis schooling, yes, it is, that has destroyed this innate curiosity and passion for learning in all children!



One Response to “Shorthand: a language on its own”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I am not sure how Fawzia ever found the time to study shorthand but I recall her intellectual curiosity at the time. I was pretty busy with all the school duties, I thought. I admired her perseverance for going after what she wanted and mastering her goal.

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