Is Shorthand a Dead Language?

Written By Robin Thompson

In the last month or so, I’ve received some wonderful notes from colleagues in our field who have run across my post in an older blog forum about shorthand, and have asked me to reprise it here to a broader audience. A request I love to be sure, because I so love looking back at how we did things when I first started in this industry at age 17. The photo above is my high school supplemental manual on Gregg Shorthand, and that’s my hand which just finished writing “Do you Speak Gregg?”

in case you are not a member of the ink-slingers’ club, this image begins a well-known religious passage: “Our Father, which art in Heaven… ” and you know the rest.

I have loved every minute of the 48 years I have spent in this industry, and cannot wait for the next several decades. I am frequently asked how I got my start in this business, and always asked to share stories of the good-old, bad-old days. A round of playful emails took me down memory lane a while back, and originally inspired me to choose shorthand as the topic to begin those stories with. So, here is the story of my first day of work in a law firm in Houston, Texas on January 21, 1974. By the way, those of us who write shorthand were known as “ink slingers.” I’m proud to be many things, including an ink slinger.

Humble Ink-Slinging Beginnings 

When I went to high school, the common get-ready-for-life course for females was home economics. If you were having the frowned upon ambition of a career outside the home, there were courses in typing, bookeeping and shorthand. Females who wanted to work were groomed to be secretaries. If you wanted to be where the “money” was, well then you definitely wanted to work as a LEGAL secretary. So, after the first half of my senior year, I had all the credits necessary to graduate high school, and at my father’s suggestion, applied to leave high school so I could be paid to learn rather than paying to learn. 

At age 17, I put on my best-structured suit, drove downtown, and parked in the first open parking space on Main Street. I walked into the door of the first building, got on its elevator, and told the operator to take me to a floor with a law firm (yep, there were uniformed elevator operators). When the doors opened, I managed to blurt out “I can type 95 words a minute, and take shorthand at 225 words per minute” to the lady at the desk. She popped back “and what does that mean to me?” After I stopped sobbing, she took pity on me because she had a daughter of her own, and agreed to test my skills. I left with an offer as a full-time starting legal secretary at a $350 a month salary.

Shorthand Saves the Day

I learned that the other incentive she had to hire me was that the four named partners absolutely refused to use the Dictabelt machines. On my first day on the job, I toured the office, saw the industry-changing MagCards, and was introduced to Howell Stone who I associate with my first vivid memory about the legal application of shorthand. Howell was a senior partner about to conduct a multi-party deposition on the firm’s biggest case. The court reporter came in with a cup of coffee, 2 packs of cigarettes (we smoked in offices back then), a Montblanc cartridge pen, and 12 steno books. 

He groused that he wasn’t about to trust a deposition of this importance to those still untested steno machines.  There were 5 attorneys in the room, and Paul drank his coffee, smoked cigarettes and didn’t miss a single syllable of testimony as he wrote his beautiful score of curved lines, stacatto strokes and dots that made up the shorthand symphony. I could hear the tip of that cartridge pen move across page after page as Paul recorded the events of that day. I was mesmerized.   For the next three years, I spent half my day “in dictation” taking letters, deposition summaries, medical reports, discovery, witness statements all in the art of Gregg shorthand.   I made extra money in the evenings transcribing depositions that Paul would dictate from his shorthand notes and was paid 25 cents a page!

The Lost Art of Shorthand

You know, I still think in shorthand. When I meet you, I’ll make a mental image of what your name looks like in shorthand. Today, I rarely run into anyone who practices the art of ink slinging. The last time I saw someone using shorthand in an official capacity was in 1993 when I was testifying in a deed restriction suit and the court reporter at the show cause hearing was taking down the testimony in Pitman (the competitor to the Gregg system most of us learned).  There’s no need for ink-slingers any longer. Attorneys now do their own typing, use programs like Dragon, or recording devices. Shorthand is indeed a lost art existing mainly in the memory of folks like me.

Now in present day, I wonder whether there are any lawsuits that have shorthand written documents produced? If so, do the parties have to hire an expert like me to read the text?  Is shorthand classified as a dead language?   Maybe I should include dead languages expert to my vitae. What do you think?

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