Pitman’s Shorthand

Pitman’s shorthand is a phonetic system of writing, based on a somewhat stylised standard English or British pronunciation (for example, it assumes that written ‘r’ is always sounded, and the phonology of the system of vowels represented is inevitably rather unsophisticated.) Consonants are represented by strokes, circles and loops, and hooks, which are joined to form a single ‘outline’ for each word (or for more sophisticated writers, occasionally for more than one word.) The vowels are represented by a dot or a short dash, or a semicircle or arrow-­head in the case of diphthongs. Each of the consonant strokes is (ideally) written either thick or thin, and the vowel dots and dashes are written either light or heavy; these are phonetically significant distinctions. The main consonant strokes are either a straight line, horizontal, vertical, or at 45° to either left or right; or a curved quadrant, four of them derived by dissecting a circle at north, south, east and west, and four by dissecting at NE, SE, SW and NW; each denotes a different consonant, with thick and thin mostly corresponding with voiced and unvoiced sounds respectively. The vowel marks are placed adjacent to strokes, either ‘in front’ or ‘following’ as the sounds require, and the vowel-­sound which each dot or dash represents is determined by its position, either at the beginning, middle or end of the consonant-­stroke as it is written. The whole ‘outline’ should be written either ‘above the line’, or ‘on the line’, or ‘below the line’ according to the position of the first vowel dot or dash, at the beginning, middle or end of its stroke respectively; this (when the writer actually does it, clearly or at all) provides almost the only element of ‘redundancy’ which may help in elucidating ambiguities. In the everyday use of Pitman’s shorthand, most or all of the vowel signs are (or were) commonly omitted.

The foregoing is a summary of the absolute basics of the system. Without attempting a more complete description, the further refinements include for example a system of small and large circles and loops, used at the beginning, middle or end of an ‘outline’, mostly to denote ‘s’, ‘z’ or combinations of these sounds; initial and terminal hooks denoting ‘r’, ‘l’, ‘n’, ‘f’ or ‘-­tion’, dots at the beginning or end of an ‘outline’ (the former, for example, denotes ‘com-­’ or ‘con-­’), halving the standard length of a stroke to denote the presence of an additional ‘t’ or ‘d’, or doubling it to express ‘-­ter’, ‘-­thor’ or something similar. In addition, for many words there are simplified symbols, which though bearing some phonetic relation with the word in question have each to be learned individually.

It may be inferred – correctly ­– from the foregoing brief explanation that Pitman’s shorthand needs to be fairly meticulously written for it to be decipherable 100 years later by a reader who has no personal knowledge of the events being recorded. ALL would not have claimed that his diaries fully satisfied this requirement. Even though three of the diaries were written on lined pages, it is usually unclear whether an ‘outline’ is ‘above’, ‘on’ or ‘below the line’; the thick-­or-­thin distinction is scarcely ever discernible; vowels are only very sparsely indicated, and their positioning usually ambiguous; it is often impossible to tell whether a stroke is upright or at an angle, or whether a stroke is ‘halved’ or not; and even the distinction between a curved and a straight stroke is often difficult to perceive. Added to this, of course, there is the fading and sporadic marking which 100 years of ageing have contributed; while vowel dots and dashes are not often marked, one becomes certain after a time that some apparent vowel signs are just irrelevant marks in the paper.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that decipherment and transcription are often problematical, and at times quite impossible. The fact that a good deal of what is recorded is repetitive routine certainly helps, and, for example, topographical probability sometimes helps in deciphering place-­names; on the other hand some of the personal names will probably always remain dubious or unidentifiable.

But one thing of which I and the reader can be certain is that (however repetitive and boring at times) this transcription is as far as humanly possible (or possible for this human, anyway) a complete one; my decipherment, bordering as it may do at times on surmise, may well be at fault in places, but the only omissions, which are always indicated in the text, are due to complete illegibility or to my sheer inability to grasp what ALL was writing.

A. Denis Linfoot
14th July 2013

See also: Wikipedia – Pitman shorthand

7 thoughts on “Pitman’s Shorthand

  1. This is fascinating. I discovered this today. (I can’t remember how I wound up here, but that’s the nature of following interesting links on the Internet, isn’t it?)

    I read everything from January 1 to April 12, 2014 this evening, and I will follow the rest daily as you go forward. History, particularly history viewed from the perspective of ordinary individuals going about their normal daily lives is seductively interesting to me!

    Forty years ago, in high school, here in the US, I took Gregg shorthand. I used it in high school, (for class notes, but mostly to pass messages to my friends in class and avoid being immediately humiliated by the teachers if they caught it and confiscated them!) and never had an opportunity to put it to work afterward in the working world. I remember at the time, being shown Pitman shorthand and finding it incredibly difficult to even begin to fathom. Did you learn it specifically to be able to transcribe these diaries, or was this already a skill of yours? Either way, so wonderful for your family and your countrymen and us out here in the rest of the world, to be able to read these, because of your careful work!

    1. Re Did you learn it specifically to be able to transcribe these diaries, or was this already a skill of yours?

      ALL had shown DL the rudiments of Pitman’s some years ago, but not enough to enable transcription of the diaries. DL largely taught himself more recently in order to transcribe the diaries.

  2. Fascinating blog.

    I have one request: can you add a navigation bar so it’s easier to go to a specific year and month? Backing up through the “older posts” is not going to work later, when people arte trying to see what Linfoot was doing on a certain day.

    1. There is a navigation bar. Hover over “Archives” and you will be able to select a specific year and/or month.

  3. As one who struggled through with Pitman’s shorthand, and experiencing difficulty in translating my own after only a short time (indeed, often making my own interpretation) I completely admire A. Denis Linfoot’s extremely arduous task. I look forward to reading each entry and acknowledge it will become more horrific.

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