Sunday, August 09, 2009

Changes rung upon dots

A wonderful 2008 LRB piece by Leah Price on the nineteenth-century rise and fall of shorthand writing (via Jennifer Schuessler):
Like Esperanto a generation later, shorthand spread through a counter-culture of early adopters – spirit-rappers, teetotallers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists. Pitman himself associated shorthand with ‘the dawn of religious freedom’ and ‘the dawn of political freedom’ (verbatim transcription, he claimed, prevented parliamentary reporters from privileging favourites). His empire grew with the British postal system. In 1840, he condensed his method into a ‘Penny Plate’ the right size for sending through the new penny post. A network of ‘gratuitous correctors’ (Pitman’s language veered between pedantry and hucksterism) encouraged autodidacts in the provinces to send one another their shorthand exercises to be marked; later, chain letters called ‘ever-circulators’, composed in shorthand, were sent through the imperial mail. When correspondence was conducted in shorthand, Pitman claimed, ‘friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.’ Those exchanges tended to link men to other men, with the notable exception of a girl called Martha Watts, who practised her shorthand by sending Pitman love letters. When the suspicious Mrs Pitman finally broke into her husband’s desk, she had to persuade a student to transcribe them for her: Pitman had been too busy spreading shorthand across the world to teach it to his wife.

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