Home Contact Sitemap

The Shorthand Place

History of Shorthand

Go to...

The select list of shorthand systems contains brief descriptions of each system.

Go to Library Collections on shorthand to find details of libraries that have special collections of materials on shorthand.

See also a chronological list of shorthand systems from early times to the present day for the names of authors and systems in order of date of publication (about 500 systems).


History of Shorthand


A brief history of shorthand

Shorthand has been described as “any system of rapid writing using symbols or shortcuts that can be made quickly to represent letters of the alphabet, words, or phrases”. (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary describes shorthand as “a method of speedy writing by means of the substitution of contractions or arbitrary signs or symbols for letters, words, etc.”

Other terms used for shorthand are,

  • brachygraphy (1590); short writing, (from the Greek word meaning ‘short’)
  • stenography (1602); narrow or small writing, (from the Greek word meaning ‘narrow’)
  • tachygraphy (1641); swift writing (from the Greek word meaning ‘swift’).

The characters used in shorthand systems tend to be based on two main approaches,

  • script or cursive; these systems use letters, signs or symbols derived from normal handwriting or print forms based on the Roman alphabet.
  • geometric; these systems use an arbitrary alphabet of signs or characters which may be derived from a geometric pattern such as a circle or ellipse. The signs may be angular or they may follow the slope of normal handwriting.

Similarly, there have been two principal abbreviation approaches;

  • orthography; systems based on the way words are spelled.
  • phonography; systems based on the way words sound or are pronounced.

Early shorthand systems tended to use the orthographic approach but most of the more successful systems from the eighteenth century onwards have used the phonographic approach.

In The Art of Shorthand (Gould, 1832) it was stated that “Shorthand is found to depend, not on a formidable array of marshaled hieroglyphics, but upon the active manoeuvring of a few select signs”. In the long history of shorthand the many systems that have been published may be measured against this statement. It helps to distinguish between the serious advances and the shorthand curiosities.

Shorthand - ancient and modern

The art of shorthand has a long history going back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Greek stenographic symbols have been found on the so-called “Aeropolis Stone”, ca. 350 bce. Xenophon is said to have used shorthand to write down the memoirs of Socrates.

The earliest recorded shorthand system, by Tiro of Rome, dates from the first century bce. Tiro was a liberated slave of Cicero whose speeches he recorded. It was a form of abbreviated longhand which both Julius Caesar and the Emperor Titus are said to have used. His symbols were known as the Notae Tironis or Notae Tironienses, and were preserved and used by monks during the Dark Ages. This ancient method remained in use for many centuries.

The Greek and Roman systems consisted of short symbols which were portions of letters of ordinary writing. They were short or long strokes and curves written in different directions. They were either detached or joined together at acute or obtuse angles or embellished with circles of hooks. Special symbols indicated different sounds or syllables. A word was represented by its most important sound or letter, or by its initial letter with a final syllable added. There were additional signs for the various inflections.

Towards the end of the twelfth century in Britain, a monk, John of Tilbury, published his ‘Nova Ars Notaria’; this was essentially an abbreviated word system but it begins the transition to methods using alphabetical symbols.

With the publication of Timothy Bright’s system of ‘Characterie’ in England in 1588, the modern era of shorthand began. In Europe Gabelsberger and Stolze in the early nineteenth century devised important systems but it has been the particular contributions of Isaac Pitman (1837) and John Robert Gregg (1888) which have been particularly significant for writing shorthand in English.

Several other British authors have also played important parts in the development of shorthand systems. Willis, often described as the ‘father of shorthand’, established the alphabetical method in 1602 and influenced later writers including Shelton (b. 1601), whose system was used by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary (1659-1669). Byrom in the early eighteenth century designed a system using a system of diacritic vowels signs which were written in various positions. This method was later developed by Taylor (1786) and by Pitman (1837).

Both Pitman and Gregg used a phonographic approach, words were written according to their sound instead of abbreviated spelling. They were both ‘geometric’, in that the consonant letter forms were derived from a specific geometric pattern. Pitman used a crossed circle, and Gregg used a crossed ellipse. These decisions have given the characteristic ‘shape’ to each of these systems. Gregg shorthand is written on a regular slope similar to forward written longhand, whilst Pitman shorthand is angular. In both cases the result is an entirely new and unfamiliar sign alphabet which has to be mastered and practised.

Reginald Dutton published his “Dutton’s Shorthand in 24 hours” in 1916. This was a significant contribution in that he drew attention to the importance of the letters, T and D, R and L, S and N, in shorthand system design. This approach influenced the design of Troab Shorthand, published in 1951 by Roy Tabor (this system was later re-named T-Script shorthand).

In 1968 James Hill published his Teeline shorthand method. This uses mainly simplified forms of longhand letters and words are abbreviated according to the way they are spelt, although this is not consistent. Several letter signs require two pen movement to write.

Many other shorthand systems have been published, especially in the U.K. over the years. The nineteenth century was particularly productive when the shorthand scene was dominated by the controversy between Pitman and Malone.

A list of some of these shorthand systems has been compiled and can be viewed in the select list of shorthand systems on this website.

See also a chronological list of shorthand systems from early times to the present day for the names of authors and systems in order of date of publication (about 500 systems).

Back to top