Why do I still write shorthand?
I am frequently asked this question. Often it is prefixed by the statements “I thought shorthand was dead” or “It’s no longer used in business”, and it is usually said with some surprise that I may be unaware of this opinion! I am then quizzed as to my interest in shorthand – a question which I could answer in a number of ways.
I could answer by explaining a brief history and the uses of shorthand. Although shorthand dates back to Roman times, it was Sir Isaac Pitman who revolutionized shorthand with the innovation of the phonographic method. Shorthand was developed for the purpose of recording words more quickly than using longhand, whether it was a person’s own thoughts or what others were saying. Pitman shorthand was originally taught to and used by men with positions of status – judges, barristers and businessmen so they could record the proceedings for their own benefit, even if not in complete verbatim form. Others, like Charles Dickens and US President Woodrow Wilson used Pitman shorthand to record their thoughts or works and prepare speeches.
Later on, particularly in the early 1900s when many women learned shorthand, they gained employment in offices. Men still studied the skill, especially for court reporting and journalism. As the 20th century wore on stenography became known more as a female occupation, being taught in girls’ schools and with girls making up the majority of business college students. (as a stenographer I always wondered how shorthand could in any way be gender-specific!)
Once the skill is learned thoroughly, it tends to be retained. I have read countless comments from shorthand writers who say they use it to jot down a thought, a Christmas list, or parts of an interview on TV. My use resembles that of Dickens and Wilson – in meetings I write accurate notes of important aspects and perhaps the discussions leading to decisions. I have a sense of privacy when others cannot read what I’m writing. I’m sure President Wilson felt the same.
I could answer by explaining the brain benefits as to why I find shorthand so important. Writing shorthand stimulates the brain in several ways to assist neuroplasticity of the brain, which assists prevention of memory loss. Both the short-term and long-term memories are exercised as we make decisions as to the theory to apply, we store words heard, then we precisely write the outline. As well as memory we are using concentration, decision-making, motor skills and dexterity. This brain health concept lead to a German study conducted over several years on shorthand writers who regularly wrote shorthand. Results showed their memories either improved or suffered no deterioration with the regular writing of shorthand.
Needless to say, these achieved benefits to the brain are not only applied to the writing of shorthand – the benefits of sharper thinking spreads across all their other activities. One woman in the study said she felt as if her brain ‘had been freed up’ by participating in the shorthand activities.
I could answer the question by asking a range of other questions to justify other popular pastimes – Why do people ride bikes when they have a car? Why do people learn to paint when they could take a photo on their phone? Why do people learn a language when they could use Google translate or are not intending to spend a lengthy period of time in that country? Why learn music when they could just download that piece? – these questions could be applied to so many worthwhile, beneficial leisure activities in which we partake.
The answer is that these activities are enjoyable and we do them because we love doing them. We need to stop thinking that shorthand was devised purely for the office situation and to be written by women. In Japan university students form shorthand clubs, whilst in Europe a number of stenography clubs have youth sections where they train for competitions. It is challenging and satisfying.
I frequently read opinions online that shorthand is now useless and I generally find these opinions are from people who have not studied it, had difficulty learning it or who didn’t have a choice about learning it. I learned it because I wanted to. Parents, often unaware of the complexity of shorthand, pushed their daughters into the subject as a ‘back up’ skill for employment.
For each of these comments, the number of positive comments is multiplied by the people who love it and gain great satisfaction from writing it. Of course, shorthand is not for everyone – no one hobby is. The people who come together at U3A in Melbourne to revise their skill are the ones who love this hobby. So do the members our Facebook group of “Pitman Shorthand Writers of Australasia” where we share history, readings, horoscopes in shorthand and a range of activities to exercise our skill. We are not seeking employment; we are seeking enjoyment.
Yes, shorthand is very handy. Yes, shorthand has a unique brain benefit. There are other reasons I could give in my answer to the question, but my main answer is this: I write shorthand because I have a love for it, I find it challenging, and it gives me satisfaction – it is my hobby!
Simple as that!
Carmel Taylor has worked as a stenographer and personal assistant prior to teaching business. Her passion is shorthand and her hobbies are art deco, fashion and sewing. She is a member of the Commercial Education Society of Australia.