Alice in Wonderland, Hamlet, and A Christmas Carol Written in Shorthand (Circa 1919)

For hun­dreds of years before the reg­u­lar use of dic­ta­tion machines, word proces­sors, and com­put­ers, many thou­sands of court records, cor­re­spon­dence, jour­nal­ism, and so on cir­cu­lat­ed in trans­la­tion. All of these texts were orig­i­nal­ly in their native lan­guage, but they were tran­scribed in a dif­fer­ent writ­ing sys­tem, then trans­lat­ed back into the stan­dard orthog­ra­phy, by stenog­ra­phers using var­i­ous kinds of short­hand. In Eng­lish, this meant that a mess of irreg­u­lar, pho­net­i­cal­ly non­sen­si­cal spellings turned into a stream­lined, order­ly sym­bol­ic sys­tem, impen­e­tra­ble to any­one who had­n’t stud­ied it thor­ough­ly.

I do not know the rates of accu­ra­cy in short­hand writ­ing or trans­la­tion. Nor do I know how many orig­i­nal short­hand man­u­scripts still exist for comparison’s sake. But for cen­turies, short­hand sys­tems were used to record lec­tures, let­ters, and inter­views, and to write edicts, essays, arti­cles, etc., in Impe­r­i­al Chi­na, ancient Greece and Rome, and mod­ern Europe, North Amer­i­ca, and Japan.

The prac­tice reached a peak in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, when stenog­ra­phy became a growth indus­try. Jack El-Hai at Won­ders and Mar­vels explains.

A cen­tu­ry ago, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple around the world reg­u­lar­ly used short­hand. Sec­re­taries, stenog­ra­phers, court reporters, jour­nal­ists and oth­ers depend­ed on the elab­o­rate short­hand sys­tems that Isaac Pit­man and John Robert Gregg devel­oped in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and count­less schools and pub­lish­ers seized the busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ty to train them. Tal­ent­ed prac­ti­tion­ers could write at speeds up to 280 words per minute.

The texts of sys­tems like Pit­man and Gregg’s “grew increas­ing­ly com­plex,” then increas­ing­ly sim­pli­fied dur­ing lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. “In 1903, the pub­lish­ers of the Gregg method released the first nov­el entire­ly ren­dered in shorthand—an 87-page edi­tion of Let­ters from a Self-Made Mer­chant to His Son by George Horace Latimer.”

More lit­er­a­ture in short­hand fol­lowed, mark­ing the Gregg sys­tem’s most baroque peri­od. Ten years lat­er saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Wash­ing­ton Irving’s The Leg­end of Sleepy Hol­low, then, in 1918, with Alice in Won­der­land, Ham­let, and A Christ­mas Car­ol, and sto­ries like Guy de Maupassant’s “The Dia­mond Neck­lace,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Mael­ström.” All of this lit­er­ary short­hand is writ­ten in what is known as “Pre-Anniver­sary” Gregg, which con­tained the largest num­ber of sym­bols and devices. In 1929, a year-late “Anniver­sary Edi­tion” began a peri­od of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion that cul­mi­nat­ed in 1988, a cen­tu­ry after the system’s first pub­li­ca­tion.

The lit­er­a­ture pub­lished in Gregg short­hand joined in a his­to­ry of short­hand “used by (or to pre­serve the work of) every­one from Cicero to Luther to Shake­speare to Pepys,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review. And yet, the “util­i­tar­i­an func­tion of short­hand sits a lit­tle odd­ly per­haps with lit­er­a­ture, giv­en the nov­el or the poem is a form asso­ci­at­ed with a dif­fer­ent realm: that of leisure.” One should not have to train in a spe­cial­ized phone­mic orthog­ra­phy to read and enjoy Alice in Won­der­land, but, on the off chance that you did so train, there is at least much enjoy­able and edi­fy­ing mate­r­i­al with which to prac­tice, or show off, your skills.

It would, I main­tain, be a fas­ci­nat­ing exer­cise to com­pare trans­la­tions of these well-known works from the short­hand with their orig­i­nals man­u­scripts writ­ten in the pho­net­ic chaos of the Eng­lish we rec­og­nize. Whether or not you have the skill to under­take this exper­i­ment, you can see many of these Gregg’s short­hand edi­tions here and at the Inter­net Archive. Just click on the embeds above to see larg­er images and view and down­load a vari­ety of for­mats.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Orig­i­nal Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed Man­u­script for Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land (1864)

Has the Voyn­ich Man­u­script Final­ly Been Decod­ed?: Researchers Claim That the Mys­te­ri­ous Text Was Writ­ten in Pho­net­ic Old Turk­ish

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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