Steno 101: Lesson Zero
Steno 101: Lesson One
Steno 101: Lesson Two
Steno 101: Lesson Three
Steno 101: Lesson Four
Before I start teaching you how to use that nice colorful chart I posted a while back, I'm going to talk about some of the fundamental principles of machine shorthand. Later I'll get into the nitty gritty, but for a first introduction, I just want to give a quick overview on what it takes to turn words into a code that a computer can turn back into words.
The Steno Machine
Today's steno machine is descended from a machine first invented by Ward Stone Ireland in 1910. A steno machine has anywhere between 24 and 37 keys: 22 capital letter keys, 1 to 4 asterisk keys, 1 to 9 number keys, and sometimes 2 optional accessory keys. The asterisk and number keys are all identical to one another; their numbers only vary for ergonomic reasons.
A chord made up of one or more of those keys (also known as a "steno outline") can represent a single letter, a syllable, or an entire word. The letters on the left hand side represent the beginning consonants of words, the keys operated by the thumbs represent vowels, and the letters on the right hand side represent the ending consonants. The asterisk key, struck by itself, represents a command to delete the last stroke from the record. When struck with other letters, it's a sort of wild card, and can be employed for several different purposes, all of which I'll get into later.
Each letter appears in a strictly defined order within a chord, and chords are always read from left to right. When writing down steno outlines for the benefit of colleagues or students, stenographers often employ a sort of pseudosteno, writing the English letters they mean to represent, rather than the actual keys they would press on the machine to write the chord. So the word "braving", which would properly be written "PWRAEUFPBG", would be written "BRAIFNG" in pseudosteno. The stenographer would know to translate the "B" to "PW", the "I" to "EU", and the "N" to "PB" when writing the outline on the machine. Because pseudosteno is much easier for beginners to read, I'm using it to write all the examples in this first lesson. Then in the second lesson I'll start teaching you those "B" to "PW" and "I" to "EU" mappings using the chart.
Principles of Steno
Steno is commonly considered a phonetic writing system, though I would really call it more of a phonetic-mnemonic system. Each stenographer has a wide degree of latitude in determining how to write each word, and the criteria they use are fairly arbitrary, as long as the outlines are memorable and easy to write. Most one-syllable words are written phonetically, unless they contain letters out of steno order (STKPWHRAO*EUFRPBLGTSDZ -- more on that in the next lesson) or if they conflict with soundalike words or phrases. Soundalike words are usually differentiated by altering vowels, taking advantage of spelling differences, or inserting the asterisk key in the less common outline.
Resolving homophone conflicts -
Multisyllabic words will sometimes be written phonetically, syllable by syllable (often with schwa sounds omitted) but will sometimes be truncated, inverted, or mashed together. When you see a slash between two steno outlines, it means that the word or phrase is made up of multiple strokes. A steno machine registers a stroke as complete when all the previously pressed keys have been released, so the slash indicates that the stenographer should lift all their fingers from the keyboard and then write the next chord in the outline.
Phonetic, shwahs ommitted -
As much as: SMUCHS
So far most of the outlines I've shown you fall under the category of "more or less phonetic". Another important tool in steno is the brief, also known as the "abbreviation", "short form", or "arbitrary". Briefs are simply non-phonetic mappings of steno outlines to English words or phrases. For instance, the phrase "from time to time" could be written out:
Or it could be briefed:
Either one will translate as "from time to time" if they're defined that way in the steno dictionary, but the second one is shorter and easier to write. The trade-off, of course, is that "FRIMT" doesn't really sound much like "from time to time", though it's got a hint of mnemonic resonance to hang your hat on. Briefs are counter-intuitive and sometimes hard to remember, but very useful. I'll be saying a lot more about how to invent and use them in subsequent lessons.
In the steno outlines I've shown you so far, you've seen capital letters, slashes, and asterisks. The only other character used in writing steno is the hyphen. Like the slash (and unlike the capital letters or the asterisk), the hyphen is a guideline to writing, and does not actually appear on the steno machine. It represents the middle of the keyboard and is used to differentiate keys written with the left hand from those written with the right hand. A letter with a hyphen after it, such as "T-", is written with the left hand; a letter with a hyphen in front of it, such as "-T", is written with the right hand. Some letters appear only on one or the other side of the keyboard, so it's not always necessary to use a hyphen when writing steno outlines. In this lesson I only use it when it's required for clarity.
Common Short Words
Very common short words are usually briefed rather than written out, because the fewer keys a stenographer presses at a time, the less energy they expend and the less likely they are to make a misstroke. English uses words like "it", "the", "is", and "will" so often, it makes sense to write them with only one letter.
Outlines and briefs for common short words:
Be: -B or B-
All English language steno theories are derived from the original Stenotype theory devised by Ireland when he invented the machine. Some modern theories depart radically from that first theory. Some differ very little. Theories tend to differ most in their treatment of briefs and how explicitly they write suffixes and vowel sounds. The controversy is often stated as "brief-heavy" versus "stroke-heavy", though it gets a bit more complicated than that. I'll probably write an article summarizing the main points of prevailing theories at some point, but in the Steno 101 series, I'm going to teach you the theory I use, which I adapted from NYCI theory, in turn descended from StenEd, one of the most popular and mainstream modern steno theories. Because I believe that steno dictionaries must be constructed by their stenographers to be truly useful, and that rote memorization of other people's systems is of limited utility, I'll try to leave plenty of jumping-off points where people can adapt the theory to their own purposes. In subsequent lessons, I'll also explain some of the inconsistencies in my dictionary, how they originated, and possible ways to improve them.
This is getting to be pretty lengthy for an introductory lesson, so I'll just mention one more element of stenographic writing, and then we'll try to put everything together.
The steno machine saves an enormous number of keystrokes by eliminating the space bar. Word boundaries in steno are implicit rather than explicit, but the steno software is able to insert appropriate spaces remarkably well without needing to be told where to put them. In certain cases, however, the stenographer needs to be careful about word boundaries and work around possible overlaps. Misplaced spaces are known as "boundary errors", and they're usually resolved by dictionary tweaking, theory modification, or, in rare cases, brute force. If worse comes to worst, a stenographer can manually insert a space between strokes, though there are usually better ways to work around the problem.
Some examples of boundary errors with and without homophone conflicts:
We're going to the play right now.
He almost makes the play write itself.
The playwright is coming to the rehearsal.
In order to resolve a potential word boundary issue, the stenographer needs to weigh the likeliness of a boundary error against the trouble of figuring out how to avoid one.
"Play right", "play write" and "playwright" from the sentences above occur commonly enough in English that a means must be found to differentiate them. But what about the word "catalogues"? Ordinarily it would be written in pseudosteno:
A smart stenographer would recognize that the components of that word are words in their own right -- "cat" and "logs" -- and try to construct hypothetical sentences in which they'd appear next to each other. For instance, you could say:
"That cat logs 12 hours a day down at the Post Office, catching mice."
It's possible to do, but it seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn't it? The stenographer will probably conclude that the phrase "cat logs" is not common enough to worry about, and put "catalogues" in their dictionary as KAT/LOGS.
"From across the banquet hall, he could see the enormous pie nearing the dessert table as its six muscular bearers staggered beneath its bulk."
"This is a pioneering development in the field of pastry transportation technology."
Based on your knowledge of English, is the phrase "pie nearing" likely to come up in conversation as often as the word "pioneering"? No? Then setting the outline "PAOI/NAOERNG" to "pioneering" is probably safe. Still, this kind of probability check needs to be done whenever defining a multisyllabic word in a steno dictionary, and the decisions are not always as clearcut as "catalogues" and "pioneering".
You've learned about pseudosteno, differentiating soundalikes, syllabic and non-syllabic outline construction, using single letters for common words, and avoiding boundary errors. Let's put it all together. I'll write a paragraph in English and then show you how I'd render it into pseudosteno.
Clifford held his breath as he waited to hear the hiss of the elevator. He checked his pockets for the fifth time. Still empty. He might belong to the dorkiest echelon of the Intelligence Squad, but he was determined to do his duty. There it went. He tiptoed rapidly out into the hall and dove through the doors as they opened. He let his breath out with a slow and shaking whoosh as his MagnaShoes engaged. Carefully, gingerly, he clomped up the wall and onto the high steel ceiling. Blood rushed to his head. The elevator's doors closed and he felt himself ascending. When they opened again, he would be ready. His fingers twitched above the cloth keypads mounted on his thighs, ready to write down everything they heard over the next 8 hours. He'd do Steno Batallion proud.
KLIFRD HELD HIS BRE*T AZ E WAITD TO HAER -T H*IS FT LFR TP-PL E KHEKD HIS POKTS FOR -T FI*FT TAOIM TP-PL STIL EM/TI TP-PL E MAOIT BLONG TO*T DORK/YEFT ERB/LON FT INT/JENS SKWAD KW-BG BUT E WAS DERMD TO DO HIS DAOUT TP-PL THR T- WENT TP-PL E TIP/TOED RAEPLD OUT NAO -T HAUL SKP DOEF THRU -T DAORS AZ THE OEPD TP-PL E LET HIS BR*ET OUT NAI SLOE SKP SHAIK/G WHAORB AZ HIS MAG/NA/SHAOS EN/GAIJD TP-PL KAIFL/LI KW-BG JING/ERL KW-BG E KLO*MD UP -T WAUL SKP OENT -T HAOI STEEL KRAOENLG TP-PL BLAOD RURBD TO HIS HED TP-PL -T LFR AES DAORS KLOEFD SKP E FELT HIM/SEFL A/SEND/G TP-PL WHEN THE OEPD SGEN KW-BG E WO B DRAE TP-PL HIS FIRNGS TWIFPD BOF -T KLO*T KAOE/PADZ MOUNTD ON HIS THAOIS KW-BG DRAE TO WRAOIT DOUN EFRG THE HERD OEFR -T NEGT AET HOURS TP-PL *ED DO STO*IN BA/TAL/YON PROUD TP-PL
BLUE = Briefed Short Words
GREEN = Punctuation
PURPLE = Multisyllabic Words With Schwas Omitted