An introduction to Gregg Shorthand and an attempted English to shorthand converter

The idea of strange alternative shorthand writing systems has, for a while, held in me a certain special appeal: the idea of drawing a few short alien symbols to represent entire phrases and sentences.

The Gregg shorthand system, invented over a hundred years ago (1888 to be exact) is one of several such systems. Curiously its original purpose was not to amaze one’s friends. It was originally intended to enable news reporters and secretaries to transcribe english speech at a speed comparable to the speed which english is spoken.

English, or the conventional english writing system, is inheritantly inefficient for such purposes: it is just not physically possible to write english much faster than about 40 words per minute and not have it appear like a collection of meaningless lines.

Shorthand systems address this issue by replacing troublesome letters such as ‘m’ (which always ends up as a scribble when I write it) with simple, clear letters, in this case a straight horizontal line. Plenty of shortening conventions are used, making it possible to write at speeds of 120-160 words per minute. By comparison, I can only type at about 80 words per minute.

As audio recording devices and video camcorders achieved widespread usage, shorthand systems quickly became obsolete and fell into relative obscurity. Just imagine: who would need shorthand when they could just film the speaker and play it back, transcribing in leisure?

Personally the reason that I learned Gregg shorthand a few months ago is less about transcribing other people’s speeches in real time (which I definitely can not do) but more about the ability to write personal notes and diaries, and be relatively confident that nobody (or at least nobody I know) will be able to read them.

Shorthand used to be actually taught in some places. This was decades ago though. On the other hand, if everybody knew Gregg shorthand, it wouldn’t be suitable to use it for writing personal notes anymore.

Just as an example, here’s a notebook of Gregg shorthand (I don’t even know what it’s for):

Looks alien to you? Good.

Actually, shorthand is really simple. The Gregg alphabet is just this:

What’s really smart about this is that similar sounding letters are grouped together, and look similar.

But this is hardly complicated, just different.

The second, less obvious difference is that Gregg shorthand is syllabic, instead of alphabetic.

Let’s try an example:

London bridge is falling down

As shorthand is written the way it’s heard, it would transcribe to something like this:

lndn brej s flng dn

All that is left is the substitution of Gregg syllables for the latin characters:

With a little (okay, a lot) of practice, the above symbols may be written in two or three seconds.

This is pretty much it. Quite a lot easier than learning French or Spanish or Chinese.

There’s a bit more to it. Much of Gregg is the wide variety of brief forms, which are abbreviations of commonly used words to save time. Some of them are pretty obvious:

your = ur

Most are a little less obvious:

correspondence = kres

A few are just downright retarded:

world = uu

Yea. That’s not even the worst. I’m sure they had a reason to do so, but someone a hundred years ago came up with more and more contrived exceptions to save a few strokes on more and more obscure phrases.

For instance, who really needs a symbol for “I am of the opinion“, or another for “I should like to have“? I wouldn’t be too surprised if they had a brief form for “I slept with your mother“. Unfortunately there is none.

(/rant). I actually like the language. Just not most of the brief forms.

In case you’re wondering, here are the symbols for “I am of the opinion” (i-m-o-p-n) and “I should like to have” (i-sh-d-l-a-v):

An attempt at a text to shorthand generator

For some unknown reason, I decided I had the need for an automatic translator from english plaintext to Gregg shorthand.

Being such an ancient writing system, I wasn’t surprised to find that no such software exists (at least none that I know of). Even unicode, whose extensive glyph tables extend from Latin to Chinese and Hebrew and even to ancient egyptian hieroglyphs, does not offer support for the curves of Gregg shorthand.

Fortunately, a translator is still possible without unicode support, albeit some imagination is required. Output is purely graphical, as shorthand cannot otherwise be represented textually.

In concept, an english to shorthand generator is not a very complicated piece of software. There are essentially two parts to it:

One, the english text has to be lexed into their pronounceable syllables. This problem has been faced many times before, mostly by text to speech programs. Indeed this problem is one of the problems faced by even the most basic TTS programs. Thus, plenty of libraries exist for this task already. For this, I chose the FreeTTS library for Java.

For example, here is a sample code snippet for FreeTTS:

Lexicon lexicon = CMULexicon.getInstance(true);
String[] phones = lexicon.getPhones("luckytoilet","n");
for(String phone : phones) System.out.print(phone + " ");

This generates the pronunciation for luckytoilet:

l ah1 k iy t oy1 l ax t

We can next map the FreeTTS syllables to the Gregg syllables. This is a many-to-one mapping: for instance, gregg does not usually distinguish between long (cake) and short (cat) vowels, both having a mapping to “a”. Additionally FreeTTS syllables contain information about vocal tones, which are irrelevant for our purposes.

The second step is to draw the glyphs, from the plaintext syllables. This step I think I’ve done a rather poor job on.

Each letter is contained in a 100px by 100px square PNG file. Additionally, the program has information on where the ‘stroke’ for each letter begins and ends, so that it can position the letters properly.

For example, the k letter:

If we wanted to draw a n after the k, we are able to do that: place the n such that the starting position of the n coincides with the ending position of the k. It’s with this idea that we are able to chain together elaborate combinations of characters.

This way letters can be drawn at the position where the previous letter ends, giving a connected, cursive look.

These two steps are pretty much the entire program. Additionally, there are certain brief forms in Gregg that are treated specially. Here the brief form list is stored in alphabet/2.dat; it is not really the brief forms of any one dialect of Gregg, but rather a combination of them. Also, vowels are generally omitted, so only longer vowels are displayed.

Here is what I came up with (showing an excerpt of Shakespeare’s Hamlet):

When the user types in the text box at the bottom, the shorthand equivalent is computed and drawn in the top region. It doesn’t handle punctuation (or any nonalphanumeric symbols which are simply stripped out).

The project is available on SVN, or checked out with this command:

svn checkout gregg


Admittedly, my program is more of a proof of concept, and is far from perfect. Rather, it’s actually quite crude.

Most words are botched and simply look wrong. In actual Gregg, letters are placed differently based on context: the th may be drawn under or over depending on what characters precede it for example. Vowels are connected in ways that are really tricky to handle in a program. My program simply draws the letters exactly the same no matter where they appear.

For instance, here’s the word cake as rendered by my program:

Indeed, the word cake is transcribed as k-a-k, which is exactly what’s generated by the program. Compare this with the correct version (as printed in the Gregg dictionary) which (correctly) puts the a (circle) under the ks:

There are cases where the a is drawn over, under, to the left, to the right, curved downwards, curved upwards, ad infinitum. In order to generate more correct Gregg, we would have to implement very elaborate and complicated sets of rules to handle the many rules of standard Gregg shorthand.

36 thoughts on “An introduction to Gregg Shorthand and an attempted English to shorthand converter

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  2. I learned shorthand years ago and I had such a good teacher who did a lot of drilling and reading out loud so it stayed with me.

  3. I love shorthand and am trying to transcribe notes that someone else wrote years ago. I am only missing a few words, trying to get it all! I enjoyed refreshing with this post

  4. I used to be very good at shorthand, and still use a few of the symbols when trying to take notes… buth ave forgotten a lot over the decades since I used it daily. I saw a note written in shorthand and came online to look for a program that would translate shorthand into regular English, but didn’t find anything. Do you know if there is something out there?

      1. Good morning.
        I have a shorthand text that I would like translated into usual English. It is not very long and naturally, I am willing to pay for the service. I could send a photogragh of the text and you could possibly tell me the cost.
        Best regards, andie

    1. Glori, That is awesome! I took Gregg Shorthand beginning in 8th grade (1977 or 1978) and took it throughout high school (1982). In fact, my teacher had to create a class just for me because I went beyond the normal curriculum. Oh, how I wished I had continued to use it especially since my best speed was around 130 wpm (not as good as your speed but still not too shabby at all). There have been so many times I would love to have used it for note-taking and documenting my diary. Ten years ago, my best friend found a note I had written her in shorthand during school and I could still read it! I can’t remember how to write it now though (or read much of it anymore). You are very lucky to still have this knowledge and skillset!! 🙂 🙂 Do you happen to know if there is a good place to learn it online for free? I’d love to learn it again. Thanks, Tammy 😀

  5. I just want to know how to write ” I love you ” in shorthand. My mother taught me 40+ years ago. And I just want to make sure I am writing it correctly as I am going to put it on a wall in my liv rm

    1. Hi Vicki! Did you get your answer? I was pretty sure I remembered that much of shorthand but I actually found a pendant online that says “I Love You” in shorthand to confirm that I was correct. It’s these shorthand letters linked together…. ILUVU. Here is a link to the pendant to show you how or you can google it. It’s on Pinterest.

      What are you making to put on your wall? Or are you going to paint it there? Anyway, good luck! 😀

      Tammy 🙂

  6. I still use my Gregg shorthand skills every day at work taking minutes messages and personal use – notes in my diary. I use to be a court shorthand writer so had certificate for 140 wpm but the average speed in court was 200 wpm. would like to pass my skills on but need to find someone very keen

    1. Hi! I took shorthand all during high school 1977-1982 and loved it but never used it so I lost my skills. I would LOVE to re-learn it for note taking and diary entries. Do you know where I could learn it for free? My best speed was 130 wpm in high school which isn’t as good as yours but if I could do that again it would be awesome for personal reasons. Please let me know at Btw, what do you mean by you would like to pass your skills on?

      Tammy 😀

  7. I am happy to see that people are still interested in what I consider a lost art. I took shorthand in high school and still remember some of it. I too have tried looking for an app to convert text to shorthand. If they can do it for other languages such as Arabic which is not conventional letters I don’t know why it would be any different to have a conversion to shorthand. (Hello developers, there’s an idea).
    I want to use it so that I can use it for coding my Passwords so that it would be harder to be deciphered.

    Thanks for this writing this blog.

  8. I learned Gregg Shorthand years ago in high school, but I am very rusty. I used it as a legal secretary, note-taking college student and as a newspaper reporter, and it was a great benefit to me.I prided myself as a reporter of NEVER misquoting anyone. However, after all these MANY (high school was in the mid 60s) years, I have forgotten the symbols for the following letters and hope someone can provide me with the info or a place to find it:
    q w x y z (I think z would be the symbol for smerging into the symbol for e. Am I right?) Thanks for your help!
    PS I am sure I have done what many others have done: I created my own shortcuts and symbols to enable me to keep my speed as fast as possible. One of the first jobs I had out of high school was to take down witness statements at a local prosecutor’s office. I had to be very accurate and very fast. Years later, after grad school, I became a college teacher. More than once, when writing on the board, I automatically used some shorthand, which I did not notice until students pointed it out to me.

    1. I taught shorthand to Navy yeomen a few years back, and achieved a top speed of 160 wpm for military-style dictation.

      In longhand English, the letter [Q] is almost always combined with [U] and pronounced like [kw], so no special shorthand character is required. “Quick,” for example, is written [k-e-k], then the W-dash is placed under the [e].

      The letter [W] can also be represented by the oo-hook, as in “wool” [oo-o-l], [W] is omitted altogether in such brief forms as [disjoined k-lity “quality”] and [k-shun “question”].

      [X] is written like [S], but thrown off at a sharper angle than the rest of the outline. This distinguishes “boss” [b-o-s] from “box” [b-o-angled s]. You may also “cross the [X]” if necessary to ensure an accurate transcript.

      [Y-a] and [Y-e] used to be represented by substantially narrower loops than would be used for [A] and [E] alone. But words beginning with [Y] are comparatively rare, so that distinction was dropped from later editions. The context should be enough to distinguish “Yale” from “ale” and “yearn” from “earn.”

      [Z] is written the same as [S]. Ordinarily, the context will ensure accuracy. But if it is necessary to distinguish, say, “bus” from “buzz,” put a small tick mark at a right angle to the curve of the [S] stroke.

      I hope that helps!

  9. I’m very interested in shorthand as my mother used to use it when she was alive. I have something my spiritual healer channelled and wrote down all these symbols. This is before I knew my mother wrote it. He doesn’t know anything about shorthand either. If I send it to u can u please let me know if it’s shorthand and translate it for me? May be a message from my mother. She passed 29 years ago. Many thanks , E.

  10. I love shorthand. It has been of great benefit in college note taking and in meetings on the job where doctors did not want a recorder on.
    I, too. learned it in high school 40 years ago.

  11. Just a heads up there used to be an online tool for converting text to Gregg Shorthand. It was done by one of the universities. When I tested it, it did a great job with all but one syllable. They did not make their code open source and it is now off line. From a user point of view I am pretty sure it was syllable bases. AKA for each combo of letters it would make the required strokes. That solved the over under for th and a lot of the other problems where you could use two different strokes.

    I do love what you have done and I hope someone continues your project. Gregg is a great tool that most have forgotten.

  12. I learned shorthand in the ’50’s while in high school. I went on to college for further study. I still use it to this day. The brief forms have changed but I continue to study and practice them. By the way I am 80 years old!

    Mrs. Sawyer

  13. hi.. gregg shorthand is nice in first place is it very hard but if u learn this is it enjoying and easy to write and read..

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