So you have documents you want to read or transcribe--but they contain shorthand! What to do?
As coursework in shorthand has dropped off the curricula of high schools and secretarial schools have withered or transformed into business programs with an emphasis on word processing skills, knowledge of shorthand is not nearly as common as it once was. With fewer people skilled in shorthand, it may be difficult to find someone to "translate" any of the mysterious, squiggly lines you come across in 19th and 20th century documents. Rather than just write shorthand manuscripts and marginalia off as indecipherable, why not approach them as one would any other unfamiliar hand--and teach yourself! Let's review some of your options.
First, it is important to determine what type of shorthand you're dealing with. Abbreviated writing systems date back to ancient Egypt and and China, with the Roman Tironian notes system persisting in Europe through the middle ages, but we will focus on the hands used in English-speaking countries over the past 200 years. For more information about the development of historical shorthands, see Meredith Mann's 2015 blog post, Despotic Characters: Researching Shorthand at the New York Public Library.
Shorthand systems are based on either a stenographic approach, which uses simplified letter forms, or an alphabetic one, which relies on mere abbreviation (and is thus not considered a true shorthand by some purists). Stenographic shorthands are further broken down into geometric or script systems. Geometric shorthands make use of circular forms coupled with straight lines following very precise rules; examples are the British Pitman (also somewhat popular in North America), Boyd's Syllabic, and Samuel Taylor's Universal Stenography.
Script systems are based on the movements common to everyday handwriting; this system is more common in Germanic-language countries and Eastern Europe. Other hybrid stenographic shorthands developed in Japan and Italy. The most common American shorthand since the late 19th century has been Gregg; this stenographic system is a compromise between geometric and script, based as it is on ellipses. Pitman remains in use in the United Kingdom, but it has been largely superseded by the spelling-based Teeline system since the late 1960s; Gregg shorthand is what most 20th century North American secretaries learned and used, so we will focus on it.
Does the shorthand look like this?
Lucky for you, there is a good deal of helpful material available for free online. A great, brief introduction to the basics of Gregg shorthand is Dennis Hollier's 2014 article, How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen: A lesson in the lost technology of shorthand. Hollier explains the development of the system, goes over the basic letter forms, and packs in a ton of fascinating shorthand history, so this one is a must-read.
Once you are ready to give it a try yourself, check out Bai Li's post on his Lucky's Notes blog, An introduction to Gregg Shorthand and an attempted English to shorthand converter. This user friendly how-to post will walk you through the basic logic of Gregg shorthand, including letter forms, how the forms joins up to make word outlines, how the outlines are further abbreviated, and the author's attempt to create an automated shorthand translator.
Getting serious about shorthand
If you decide you're ready to do a little more work to get up to speed (see what I did there?) for accurate transcription work, you'll want to explore more formal learning tools. Websites you'll want to refer to as you get serious include:
An exhaustive collection of resources, including descriptions of the various versions, revisions, and editions of the original Gregg manuals (first through fifth editions, 1888-1928; Anniversary; Simplified; Diamond Jubilee; Series 90; Centennial; and even German- and Irish-language editions), plus the full text of the 1929 Anniversary edition in HTML. The charts of letter forms are particularly helpful.
Essentially a blog-formatted user group where you can swap tips and tricks with other learners--there is a lot of good content here, and it's searchable!
Yes, a message board! And it is currently in use, right through the date of this writing (February 2019)--with more than 4,000 users and sections for discussing beginner, intermediate, and advanced shorthand ; drills; transcription tips; and more. This seems like a good spot to ask for real-time feedback on any troublesome transcription issues. This may also be a good place to identify which edition of the Gregg textbooks is best for your project, timeline, and learning style.
Prefer video learning? YouTube user "Shorthandly" has been busy the past few weeks uploading a full Gregg shorthand course. At 44 videos and counting, this series may be useful to the casual learner. After several introductory videos showing how to write each stroke properly, each video focuses on a particular letter form or shorthand convention for ten minutes or less.
The consensus regarding the best book for the beginner seems to be:
You'll want to pair any manual you choose with an appropriate Gregg shorthand dictionary. This may be trickier, as none of these appear to be currently in print, so you may have to hunt around to find a used copy. This one is recommended to pair with the Simplified manual. Once you have familiarized yourself with the basics, a dictionary may also go some way toward helping you interpret the shorthand you're trying to transcribe, too. The Gregg Shorthand website recommended above has helpfully scanned many of the out-of-print dictionaries and shares them in PDF format, along with many other handy reference documents. For instance, here is the dictionary that accompanies the 1929 Anniversary edition. The only problem here for the 21st century transcriber: obviously, entries are only word-to-outline! So you will still have to have a rudimentary understanding of shorthand letter forms and outlines to know where to begin searching.
Keep in mind that, while these resources may serve as guides as you begin to make sense of the marginalia you come across, truly mastering Gregg shorthand requires intensive study over an extended period; memorization of thousands of joined letter form outlines is necessary to be really proficient. And, as the Gregg system includes outlines for around 30,000 words, it is not exhaustive of English vocabulary; secretaries improvised their own outlines, as well. However, it is also important to note that reading shorthand is different from writing it. Unlike the early 20th century clerks mentioned in Hollier's article, you're probably unlikely to be competing in a timed shorthand writing contest. Your focus as a transcriber working with shorthand is necessarily more concerned with occasionally interpreting the hand. Though shorthand requires real study to become proficient, if a child can do it, so can you!
Crowd-sourcing shorthand solutions
Have any of our readers taught themselves shorthand outside a traditional course? How did you do it? Do you more regularly come across Gregg, Pitman, Teeline, or another system? What are your strategies for transcribing it? We would love to hear about how the transcription community is dealing with this issue as mastery of shorthand becomes an ever-rarer skill. Given how many retired volunteers are working on crowdsourcing projects, it could be that there would be plenty of shorthand reading potential volunteers out there. We won't know until someone tries a project. If you'd like to try, contact us.