Origins of Shorthand

Examples of Shorthand

The art of capturing the spoken word into text has been a fundamental need since the age of ancient Egypt, it’s roots dating back 5000 years. Apparent since those early days is that the traditional method of writing, or “longhand”, is simply too slow to keep up with the pace of speech.

Alas, “shorthand” was invented, one of the world’s oldest professions, a method of rapidly writing using abbreviations and symbols, a sort of “code language” that can be translated into standard text with a high level of accuracy.

One of the earliest recorded shorthand systems dates back to 63 BC by a man named Marcus Tullius Tiro, a slave who belonged to the Roman orator, philosopher, and lawyer Cicero. His system of shorthand was widely adopted by monks and scholars for the next thousand years.

Sir Isaac Pitman

Sir Isaac Pitman

In the year 1180, a shorthand system was made for the English language. By the year 1837, Sir Isaac Pitman invented the first practical shorthand system that is still used to this day, which was based on the sounds of words, or “phonetic principle”.


The Stenotype Machine

The history of shorthand and the stenotype machine are closely interwoven. In 1877 the first American stenotype machine was created by Miles Bartholomew, making the recording of shorthand much faster. Over the next century the stenotype machine evolved to work with computers and have microprocessors in them.

Today’s modern stenotype machine can be compared to a piano. Multiple keys are pressed simultaneously to express syllables, words or phrases with a single motion of the hand. Much like pressing certain keys on a piano expresses a chord sound, you must learn the “chords” of a stenotype machine to be able to capture the spoken word.

Learning the basics of a piano can take years, and so does shorthand. Reaching the proficiency level of 180 words per minute (wpm) will often take people a year of steady practice. Becoming proficient is only the beginning, as skill levels vary. Imagine the difference between a piano player with one year of lessons and Beethoven. The official speed record clocked an impressive 375 wpm.

It is a true art form playing the hundreds of short-forms together in concert at a rapid speed.

The New Era of Speech-to-Text Technology

Until the 21st century, there was no other method of capturing speech as quickly as shorthand. In 2016, a Microsoft research team reached a milestone in speech-to-text (STT) technology. Research has shown that the human word error rate for transcription is 5.9%, otherwise known as “human parity”. The Microsoft STT was able to reach human parity, meaning they had created technology that recognized words in a conversation as well as professional human transcribers.

This is a turning point in the centuries-old art of capturing the spoken word. An ancient profession estimated to be 5000 years old is becoming obsolete due to technology, like many other advances in tech have done before. The implementation of Artificial Intelligence to train and improve STT algorithms has further accelerated the growth and development funded in the billions of dollars by the major tech companies such as Google, IBM,  and Microsoft.

The era of speech-to-text is here and fewer young people are choosing to learn shorthand. Seeing how effective it is to use STT on our phone every day, can you blame them for thinking shorthand is not a safe career path?

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