Compressing English

When I first came upon shorthand as an adult, I had almost no idea of its existence nor of its many forms. I rarely needed to take notes and I had dismissed the concept presented second hand in my adolescent years. In particular, I remember a fellow youth describing something like shorthand where he dropped the vowels. However, vowel dropping seemed immediately absurd to me and so I threw the baby out with the secondhand bath water for the time.

Having been re-introduced as an adult to shorthand, I found and dove into the most popular of these shorthands in America in the twentieth century which is Gregg shorthand. Perhaps owing to my late introduction, I feel like shorthand is one discipline that has faded quickly in society as machines have taken its place.

Forms of shorthand have roots as deep as transcription itself in many languages, not just English. Fast notetaking is an essential characteristic of written language. The English alphabet is compressed in that we have no separate letter distinguishing long and short vowels.


Many words are distinguished strictly by the vowel sound, so equating vowel dropping to shorthand was and still is absurd in the strictest sense. I have a strong counter-example to vowel dropping that pops to the front of my mind every time my mind touches this subject. It is that I can generate 10 words from b-t (beginning with B and ending with T) whose vowel is the basic long and short A, E, I, O and U vowel sounds that I was taught in elementary school. Other vowel sounds of American English hide next to liquids such as R or L and common american pronuncing dictionaries ignore the phonetic difference, so to my b-t list, I mix in some r-colored vowels (mainly of the form b-r). I've put the pronunciation in the often unfamiliar IPA standard notation, but also add a more familiar term for myself and those who are amateur american linguists.

Long a (diphthong)
Long ar (r-colored diphthong)
Long ar (r-colored)
Short a
Short au (diphthong)
Short aur (r-colored diphthong)
Long e
Long er (r-colored)
Short e
Long i (diphthong)
Long ir (r-colored diphthong)
Short i
Long o (diphthong)
Long or (rounded r-colored)
Long oe (rounded diphthong)
Long oer (rounded r-colored diphthong)
Short o
Short o (rounded)
Short or (r-colored)
Long u (rounded)
Long ur (rounded r-colored)
Think british poor
Middle u (rounded)
Middle ur (rounded r-colored)
Short u
Short er, ir, ur (r-colored)

Now Gregg shorthand which is a compressed phonetic notation, does not have the same alphabet. Instead of characters, Gregg letters are called strokes. Strokes combine end to end to form words. Gregg has vowel strokes for A, E, O, and U. Perhaps it seems strange, but the I is not given equal vowel status in Gregg shorthand. Gregg represents a long I as a modified A stroke, and a short I as the E stroke. In favor of consistent structure, I have put the long and short I sounds into what I call the "middle" vowel for these letters. I put the list above into tabular structure that reflects this Gregg mapping from strokes to pronunciation.

Common vowels
⇓ IPA ⇒ Front Back G length ⇓
bait boot Long
beet boat
bite put Medium
bit bald
bet but Short
bat bot
Spelling ⇒ A U ⇐ Gregg ⇑

R-colored vowels
⇓ IPA ⇒ Front Back G length ⇓
payer boor Long
beer bore
buyer burr Medium
bird -
bear bear burr Short
bar bird bar bird
Spelling ⇒ AR UR ⇐ Gregg ⇑

Diphthong Spellings
⇓ IPA ⇒ Front to Back Back to Front G length ⇓
Mid to Close boy lawyer Long
Open to Close bow power Short
Spelling ⇒ OE OER ⇐ Gregg ⇑

Look at the three tables above. Each column represents the collection of vowel sounds which share a common stroke (spelling) in Gregg shorthand. Gregg makes these coarse categorizations of vowels to compress the language. Unless I restore prescriptiveness to Gregg, the vowel strokes of Gregg have more homographs than American spelling and phonetic transcription. For example, beet, bit and bet all share the same strokes of B E T to write the word, so Gregg makes those 3 words into homographs (meaning, written with the same strokes, but a different pronunciation or meaning).

I like Gregg, but I want to improve its prescriptiveness, so I name long, medium and short vowels within each stroke. Having done so, if I want to be prescriptive of pronunciation in Gregg, I may add a short, middle or long mark to the Gregg lettering. I did not acheive this grouping of vowels trivially, but it made more sense to me with time and study. I grew beyond my basic understanding of the 5 vowels from grade school while learning IPA and Gregg. In this way, I expand the vowels of Gregg shorthand to a full pronouncing notation that follows American English but respects IPA.

The hybrid vowels in the chart above come into Gregg as a sequence of vowel strokes. The R colored vowels come into Gregg shorthand by adding an R stroke after the vowel.