Monthly Archives: March 2022

Cicero’s slave Tiro transcribed his speeches viva voce in the Senate, and we still imitate his cadence, though it is slowly falling away from English along with classical culture. Delenda Carthago! That is the iconic origin of shorthand, though writing itself is an epitome of speech. I have begun to learn Gregg, and as with touch typing, I berate myself for not having undertaken the study sooner. With the possible exception of sinograms, there seems to be a tradeoff between ease of learning and fluency in use, in the different systems. ‘Anniversary’ Gregg is hardcore, with an exuberance of further shortenings, which though they have as much logic as could be mustered, must be learnt as vocabulary. There is an analogy with the poverty of phonics as a heuristic for mastering the etymological hodgepodge that is English spelling (though I doubt it is much better in languages that have a regular orthography, such as Spanish or Finnish).

I would never dream of learning a skill for its utility, and that is perhaps what kept me back so long from typing; for a longhand writer, though, the advantage of shorthand is palpable. The delight of Gregg lies in its intelligence. As in the Semitic languages, vowels are ambiguous or absent, and must be supplied from morphology and sense. It is impossible to decipher words in isolation, because whereas alphabetic writing is characterised by considerable redundancy, shorthand is by contrast underdetermined. It is as if the language were full of homonyms, like Chinese written without significs. A trivial example: ‘n’ is a short horizontal line: ‘–’ which in isolation can mean ‘in’ or ‘not’ (but not, for example, on) – possibilities chosen to limit ambiguity, because those two words inhabit semantic fields with little overlap.

An old friend of mine, when I told her, smiled dreamily, and waggled an outline in the air with her finger, “That is how you write ‘inherently’!” (or some such word). She learnt it as a schoolgirl in Peru, when women were expected to become secretaries; having never used it since, like most people’s ‘little Latin’, after six decades, still she retained its savoury imprint.

I stumbled across the idea of learning these loops in a quotation from a Victorian author on melancholy, for which he recommended as a cure “some such absorbing study”. Gregg is my Vim to your Emacs.