Shorthand. Most of us have heard of it. We know, generally speaking, that it’s a system of writing that enables the writer to record at the same speed at which a person speaks–which is pretty remarkable. We’re probably most familiar with it today through historical works and court stenography, which of course now uses machines but was hand-written for a long time.

But what is shorthand, speaking in more concise terms? And how and when was it created? What version would Gemma Parks be using in the Imposters series?

A Short History of Shorthand

Shorthand has been around … let’s say a LONG time. The oldest record we have of it is actually inscribed on the Parthenon in Greece, but you can bet that if it made its way onto something like that, it was in common use well before this temple was built in the 5th century BC. Tracing it up through the ages, we see systems of shorthand in both Eastern and Western culture in various forms, all the way into modern times. Most Western shorthand systems focus either on vowels OR consonants, using variations of symbols for their primary sounds to indicate the seconary. So either consonants with variations to indicate the vowels, or vowels with variations to indicate consonants.

The earliest known shorthand in China–a “highly cursive” variation of their writing–was first used in court proceedings, especially to take confessions. Accuracy was crucial here because the confessor had to sign and “seal” a written confession with their thumbprint before it could be entered into official court records.

As ancient gave way to modern, progress continued to be made on shorthand methods for each language, bringing us all the way up to the modern era.

In 1909, the system most popular in England (and second-most popular in the US) was the Pitman system. This system was taught as one of the first requirements of correspondence school and is what Gemma Parks would have learned for her journalism…and of course, for the Imposters’ investigative work.

The Pitman System of Shorthand

Sir Isaac Pitman created his legendary and long-lived version of shorthand in 1837. Like most othery popular English shorthand methods,  rather than relying on how a word is spelled, it relies instead on how it is pronounced. For this reason, shorthand was often called phonography.

Where Pitman revolutionized the process was in using stroke breadth to add variation. Think of it as something being bolded. A bold or thick line would indicate a heavier sound. For instance, the related sounds of P and B would be written with the same stroke, but the B sound would be thicker.

Pitman’s alphabet relies on only two strokes: the straight line and the quarter-circle. Their direction and placement are what dictate their sound. Of course, to the untrained eye, it looks like a bunch of chicken scratch…


…but those who are fluent in his alphabet can read it as easily as any other words and write it far, far faster.

His strokes and quarter-circles all represent CONSONANTS. Vowels are indicated by dots (for short vowel sounds) and dashes (for long ones) which are positioned around the consonant strokes to indicate whether the vowel sound comes before or after, and which vowel it represents.

To make it even faster, vowels can be left out entirely if their clarification isn’t needed. But unlike some vowel-deprived systems, they’re still there for when you do.

Here’s Pitma’s consonant alphabet with a phonetic spelling of each letter. Note that they do NOT match the written alphabet! Instead, they include unique characters for combined sounds like for CH or SH.

The Pitman system of shorthand also includes what are called “logograms”–symbols representing whole words or commonly grouped words. So phrases like “you are” and “thank you” would have a single symbol, as would words like “the,” “an,” “and,” “have,” and so on.

Circles, loops, and hooks are also used to represent different sounds like S-and-Z (circles of various sizes) and the -st or -sed endings (loops).  Hooks can face either direction depending on what they represent and be either at the beginning or ending of another sound to indicate R or N or SHUN sounds.

And for even more possible variations, there is “halving” and “doubling” of the existing symbols.

Amusingly, Pitman’s epitaph on his gravestone is written phonetically (“in luving memeri ov…”). His system spread through the entire English-speaking world in large part thanks to his brothers, who emigrated to America and Australia, and took the system with them, using it in courtroom settings in both countries.

W R I T E   T O   G E M M A

Have an journalistic or shorthand questions?
You can email Gemma directly at

More From This Category

British Intelligence in 1909

British Intelligence in 1909

In 1909, "British Intelligence" was actually a bit of a misnomer. England had no unified intelligence force. And though there were intelligence divisions of the army, the navy, and the police, they were laughably behind other countries in the intelligence game. The...

read more
Circus Buildings

Circus Buildings

In the footsteps of itinerant jesters and strolling players of the past, the world of circus emerged, illuminating the glimmer of wanderlust in the hearts of their audiences. As the late 18th century dawned, troupes began touring to even the tiniest hamlets, bridging...

read more



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Print Friendly, PDF & Email