Take note – An Irishman’s Diary on Pitman shorthand

The Lord’s Prayer in Pitman shorthand

The Lord’s Prayer in Pitman shorthand


They crowd around the speaker, a bright-eyed, eager mob, and thrust their little digital recorders under his nose. If sequestered in a courtroom or a press box they must, I suppose, turn the volume to max to catch it all. At their age, well over 60 years ago – before transistors, even – it was notebook, pencil and Pitman shorthand: pages of hurried hieroglyphs to get down what the man said (no official women, so far as I remember, and fewer mobs of media in those less insistent days).

I may be creakingly unique in these islands at having been apprenticed to journalism – that is, in words drawn up by solicitor and typed on foolscap paper.

They bound me to serve the Brighton and Hove Herald for five years, from age 16 to 21.

In return, I would be trained in journalism and equipped with shorthand taught, one to one, by a patient, if somewhat disdainful, private teacher.

He did a good job. Making notes from book or screen, I still find squiggles of Pitman creeping in and saving time: it’s like having another language that breaks out now and then.

“Squiggles” is not a fair word for the elegant flow of strokes at varying angles, connections and thicknesses (best with pencil) and dots or ticks placed for the vowel sounds. Pages of impeccable Pitman, like those brought back from the magistrates’ court by our senior reporter, had a special graphic beauty, like a text in some ancient tongue.

The system was developed by the Englishman Sir Isaac Pitman, who first presented it in 1837.

Its symbols represent sounds of words as they are spoken, with, for example, the light and heavy timbre of consonants (“p” and “b” or “t” and “d”) shown by thin or thick strokes, or with hooks or circles adding extra meaning.

A rival system was Gregg shorthand devised by an Irishman, John Robert Gregg, son of a Presbyterian station-master at Knockcorry, Co Monaghan.

He was somewhat deafened by a village schoolteacher who liked to bang heads together but eventually perfected his system after years of being thought dim.

Gregg published it as an emigrant to America in 1893, where it caught on as more user-friendly than Pitman.

As shown to me proudly by a friend on the Herald, its light curlicues ran in more flowing lines, a bit like Arabic but read the right way across.

Over time, a growing list of abbreviations added to the speed of Pitman notation, and the standard attainment became set at 140 words a minute, allegedly the rate of “normal” speech in English.

A mere 80 words was the basic target of my six months of weekly training, occasionally well exceeded in years with a spiral notebook, head bowed at interminable city council gatherings.

In its early decades, I learn from a piece in the London Review of Books, “shorthand spread through a counter-culture of . . . spirit-rappers. teetotallers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists”.

George Bernard Shaw, who was at least one or two of these, drafted his work in Pitman.

Shorthand still equips the valued kind of secretary or PA who takes minutes at meetings, since audio machines and laptops record far too much unselective, indistinct babble.

So, for that matter, must a good many reporters waving microphones.

On the other hand, the speech rates of many politicians are now reaching phenomenal speeds, as they try to cram the maximum of words into the minimum of airtime.

Simon Harris, Minister for Health, rattles away at something like 400 words a minute, beyond even the Pitman world speed record of 350 words a minute set by one Nathan Behrin in 1922.

In Stormont, Sinn Féin’s new northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, can pack in more words a minute than any other politician there and, persuaded by colleagues, has been “working on slowing down.” Stuck with notebook and pencil in today’s reporting, I might just have missed a few bits that really mattered.