Stenography is the practice of writing in shorthand, either by hand or with a specialized stenograph machine. Well through the 20th century, stenography was a necessary skill for secretaries, reporters, and other people who needed to quickly and accurately record written information. While this skill is in less wide use today, it is still valuable in some environments, such as courtrooms, where a real time transcription of events is required by law.
People have been practicing stenography for almost as long as they have been writing. Shorthand systems can work in a number of different ways, and numerous languages have spawned a whole assortment of shorthand systems. Some systems rely on symbols which represent specific letters, sounds, or concepts, while others use known letters, but assign new meaning to the letters for the purpose of writing in shorthand.
In all cases, the goal of stenography is to make it easy to write something down quickly and with great accuracy. Using stenography, someone can record information much more quickly than he or she could be writing. Handwritten stenography has been an arsenal in the tool of secretaries, journalists, and other note takers for centuries, with some people developing their own systems to create encoded shorthand which cannot be read by anyone else. An encoded system can be useful for people who want to be able to handle sensitive information safely.
Stenotype machines typically have a small array of keys which is operated by “chording,” in which multiple keys are hit at the same time to record an entire line of data. A stenotype user can represent entire sentences with only a few letters, relying on his or her knowledge of a particular stenotype system and where the letters are placed on the paper printout. In many cases, multiple meanings can be assigned to the same letter at the same position, with the interpretation of the printout depending on context.
One of the interesting things about stenography is that while it is technically universal, many people have trouble reading things written in shorthand by someone else. Some people, such as court reporters, are required to learn and use a standard system so that independent review of the transcript can be performed. Many people also like to learn established systems so that they can hire transcriptionists to “unpack” their shorthand into full text. For people who use unusual systems or modify a system, even unintentionally, a shorthand communication can look like total gibberish to someone else.