Stenography’s Spiritual Dimension

Currently I’m reading a lot about nineteenth-century short-hand writing systems. It’s turning into a pretty large project, and a lot of it involves reading lots of old handbooks and tracts and magazines and such (many of which you can find online; the internet is still amazing, guys). As the historian Carole Srole has shown, from the 1830s to about the 1870s, shorthand writing systems were considered tools of social reform. Shorthand was both a kind of trade and a skill that would enable men (and it was practiced almost exclusively by men at first) to enhance their own learning. As Srole writes,

Stenographers’ early history strengthened their identity as middle-class men. Their unique association with reform and mastery linked them to middle-class values of progress and perfectibility. Shorthand’s potential as a skill for future learning contributed to stenographers’ self-identity as men who made themselves. They could see each action as movement forward. Their efforts to seek out new material and courses, practice to build speed, and travel for employment enhanced their image as ambitious, autonomous men (42).

Shorthand became a way to build, solidify, and perfect a kind of professionalized middle-class virtue. Shorthand allowed its practitioners to improve themselves economically (through increased employment opportunities), mentally (through enhanced literacy), and in some sense spiritually through what was for some a nearly monomaniacal dedication to craft and the transubstantiation of the spoken word to the written word.

Shorthand’s spiritual dimension is totally fascinating to me. For example, here’s an excerpt from Isaac Pitman’s seminal Stenographic Sound-Hand (1837) that suggests just what was at stake in writing reform for early shorthand evangelists.

Convinced as the writer is of the unspeakable importance of the art of writing, and more especially of short-hand, to man, while an inhabitant of this material world; convinced also of the superior excellency of a language written as pronounced, above one, like the English, where the sound of the letters is continually at war with the sound of the words; keeping in mind too the discoveries,the improvements, and facilities of every description that characterise this new age; he thinks he is not too sanguine in expecting, that, ere long, shorthand will be the common hand, in which the imperishable Word of God will exist no larger than a watch, and be as constantly used for the discovery and regulation of man’s spiritual state, with reference to eternity, as the pocket chronometer is for the discovery and regulation of time with reference to the the present life (10).

Two interrelated ideas seem important here. The first is the idea that, through its condensation in shorthand writing, the Bible (“the imperishable Word of God”) could be reduced to the size of a pocket watch and carried on the person at all times in order to ensure the constant vigilance of man over his “spiritual state.” And just as a pocket watch regulates our daily rhythms in “the present life,” the ever-present shorthand Bible would ensure that we remain in sync with the spiritual rhythms of “eternity.” 

The second idea is that shorthand could harmonize a language in which “the sound of the letters is continually at war with the sound of the words.” The disjunction between the individual sounds of component parts and the combined sounds of those parts has, for Pitman, a kind of transcendental wrongness about it. In this sense, the sound of the word and the sound of the letter reflect a more pervasive spiritual imbalance suggested by the absence of the Word of God from the person of the average man. In Pitman’s view, then, a perfect accord between English as it is spoken and English as it is written would create a kind of neo-Adamic language, one appropriate to realign man’s spiritual clock with that of God.

For someone like Pitman, the stakes of language reform and the possibilities of shorthand are transcendental. This is one of the aspects of nineteenth-century shorthand I find endlessly compelling. As shorthand became a popular means to achieve professionalization and middle-class respectability though, especially in the U.S., this spiritual dimension, sadly, predictably, fell away.

1 Comment

  1. Ellyn Gluskin

    May 6, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    Hello Mark

    I enjoyed reading this, and will reread it again to completely understand it.

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