Friday, May 3, 2013

What If English Were Spelled Phonetically?

   Have you ever wondered what the secretaries are writing on their notepads? Have you ever seen the markings of the stenographers? Look over the reporter’s shoulder and you will see a strange, ancient-looking code. It could be Hebrew or Arabic or hieroglyphs. It could hold a secret message that only the transcribers know. 

If the transcribers are speakers of the English language, they are likely writing in Pitman’s shorthand. Sir Isaac Pitman didn’t invent shorthand, but his system is the most widely used among English speakers today. Pitman published his first shorthand treatise in 1837, entitled Phonography, or Writing by Sound, being also a New and Natural System of Shorthand. Isaac Pitman spent every moment of 1837 perfecting his shorthand. Such are the obsessions of the single-minded. He didn’t even pause on the 20th of June, to celebrate the accession of Queen Victoria. "Not,” Isaac Pitman told his biographer, "that I loved Her Majesty less than other people, but that just at that time I loved Phonography more." 

Pitman called his shorthand “Phonography,” because his system was the literally the writing of sound. To create a system where words could be written exactly as they are pronounced — this was Pitman’s dream. Pitman’s shorthand consists of characters, with each character representing — not a word — but a sound in human speech. Emphasizing how words sound, how they are spoken, is the fundamental difference between writing with Pitman characters and writing with the Roman alphabet. For instance, the sound at the beginning of the word “cheese”, represented by the letters ‘c’ and ‘h’ in the Roman alphabet, is represented by / in shorthand. When you see the symbol, you don’t have to guess if it is pronounced ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ or ‘zh’ or ‘k’. It is exactly as the speaker said: /. Isaac Pitman thought that writing with the Roman alphabet was clumsy and inefficient, especially when it came to transcribing. Phonography linked writers directly to the spoken word. For this reason, some people call Pitman’s shorthand “the alphabet of nature”.

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