snapshot: Glossography, a smoothly flowing phonetic alphabet

While strolling through old shorthand systems a few nights ago I stumbled across a very attractive alternative alphabet called Glossography, also known to its author as Glossal Writing. It was created by an educated man who had both a scientific nature and a good sense of aesthetics. The book is:

Glossography. A system of short-hand based upon
   the principle of genetic analogy between writing and speech.
Robert Armstrong M.D.
Chicago: Libby & Sherwood Print Co., 1901
Library of Congress catalog: Z 56 .A73 1901

In the introduction of his book, Dr Armstrong admits that existing shorthand systems are capable of great speed. He says he is trying to design something which is highly legible and more easily learned. A system for everyday handwriting and occasional dictation use.

Dr Armstrong indicates that his system of less than 50 symbols could be written rapidly if necessary because his glyphs all flow together smoothly. Compared to Pitman Phonography, “the Glossal movements are not only fewer but freer, having fewer angles and sudden stops… Its word forms can be made clearly legible with very much less care than is necessary in methods which omit part of the elements, using stiff, angular, unevenly shaded outlines.”

Armstrong believes that a well-practiced user of his system can take dictation in Glossography without needing any abbreviations, “grammalogues” and so forth. This high degree of legibility would make it possible for anyone to read the shorthand at any time. However abbreviations could certainly be devised if a user were interested in doing so.

He feels that his glyphs graphically represent speech itself. Vowels “should be represented by simple, forward flowing, independent linear signs…” He attempted to base the individual vowel signs on the shape which the tongue and lower lip acquired while producing each phoneme. A similar but more abstract rationale went into the design of the consonants.

One possible weakness of the system is the similarity of some of the symbols. “s” is a tiny semi-circle, “z” is a small semi-circle, “sh” is a bigger one and “zh” is a large one. An observer might wonder if every user could reliably make all those distinctions in reading and writing. However, as all the sounds in the group are somewhat related, the original word could probably be deduced even if the writing were a bit ambiguous.

In his rare little book Dr Armstrong has left us a delightful phonetic alphabet.

You can view the book online at Hathi Trust or purchase a hardcopy reprint at Amazon.com


shorthand magnets on Etsy

An Etsy seller called Asterisk Photoart is selling a few different sets of these cute little magnets featuring words from an old Gregg Shorthand book.


video shows German stenographers in action

Here’s a link to a YouTube video that shows two different German stenographers taking dictation and (as far as I can tell) introduces the general idea of pen stenography. It is interesting to see the symbols they use and how they hold their pens.


terminology: shading

In the comparative study of shorthand systems, shading refers to the use of light or thin lines in contrast to dark or thick lines.

Example: in Pitman shorthand a light vertical line represents the sound of T and a heavy line of the same size and direction stands for D. Two consonants are often written back-to-back, sometimes requiring the writer to change from heavy shading to a light line in the middle of the combination. In Pitman even tiny dots and dashes must be drawn correctly as either heavy or light!

For people who have a knack for penmanship, shading is relatively easy to accomplish with fountain pens. It is harder to achieve with pencils, ball-point pens and fingers on touch-screens.

Enthusiastic users of systems that require shading say it doesn’t matter – you can write with a non-shading utensil and you will still be able to figure out whether you meant to write bee or pee, cash or gash.

Shorthand systems that do not use shading are sometimes called light-line systems.


off we go

It started when I was five years old. I had learned how to read and I could write fairly well in block printing. One day I got bored and started exploring the closets in the house. I found a notebook full of strange swirly marks, unlike any of the printing or cursive writing I had seen before. It blew my mind.

I don’t recall if anyone explained to me that it was shorthand. I assume the notebook must have belonged to my much older half-sister but maybe it was my mother’s. At that time she still had a diary from her high school days so it’s possible that she had held on to a shorthand notebook as well.

From there I followed a trajectory which seemed unique at the time, but now I know others have followed a similar course: codes and ciphers, studying a few foreign languages, dabbling in Esperanto, inventing a few languages and writing systems of one’s own, collecting some rare books on these topics.

Maybe we are “born this way,” pre-destined to be fascinated by these things. Some quirk of brain structure perhaps. If you are one of us, welcome aboard.