Category Archives: Linguistic History

The Rise and Fall of Shorthand in Victorian-Era America

Shorthand experienced its heyday in the years immediately following the Civil War.  As the end of the 19th century approached, many reporters began to swear off its usefulness, saying that shorthand’s time had passed, and that it was no longer worth the significant effort required to learn it.  By the early 1890’s, the century’s practice of producing verbatim speeches in the newspapers was on the wane, and this reduced the need for the most skilled stenographers.  Readers preferred more interpretation of great speeches and the happenings of Congress, rather than just reading the proceedings verbatim.  And, speeches were beginning to be transcribed from their prepared written copies rather than the shorthand notes of those who actually witnessed them.

Teach Yourself Shorthand

Teach Yourself Shorthand (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)

Often called the ‘wiggling art’, shorthand, or stenography, first emerged as a skill learned by men, hoping to advance their reporting careers in courtrooms or for newspapers.  Many underestimated the time required to learn the art of stenography and overestimated the number of well-paid positions available for those who mastered it.   In the early 1890’s, authorities on the subject estimated that, of the 100 young men who took up shorthand, 90 lost interest within the first six months and lacked the discipline to see their studies through.  Another 5 persevered through 18 months – and became able to write about 130 words per minute, if they were of everyday use on easy topics. Another four reached the verbatim speed of 180 words per minute, as long as the topics were familiar and routine, like political addresses or sermons, or interviews with famous people on famous topics.  It was estimated that only one of those 100 men ever achieved verbatim speed, regardless of the topic.

As the typewriter came into more widespread use in the late 19th century, women began to find work in dictation, or recording their bosses’ memos and letters in shorthand, as amanuenses.  The 19th century world saw the two types of shorthand as so different that it was said that even the best amanuensis would find recording court reporting in shorthand very difficult while the best court and newspaper reporters would find the dictation work performed by amanuenses nearly impossible.

The dictation work performed by amanuenses was said to require much less skill and brought lower pay.  Most amanuensis work involved recording letters and memos while they were dictated by a boss or other executive.  Unlike recording speeches, letters and memos were often spoken more slowly than talking speed.  And, in the one-to-one meetings that often accompanied dictations, amanuenses could ask their speakers to repeat their words, or even to slow down.  Also, over time, amanuenses developed professional relationships with their subjects, making it easier to record what they said, even at higher speeds.

The Lord's Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19...

The Lord’s Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19th-century systems (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was said that the stenographic work of newspaper men and court reporters was more difficult to learn than that of dictation shorthand.  Stenographers were judged by their ability to take notes precise enough that they could then be reconstituted later into first class reporting.  This, of course, required good note-taking and an understanding of the material sufficient enough to fill in the gaps.  After six months of diligent study and practice, a dictation shorthand writer might be able to write 120 to 150 words per minute.  During that same time, a person studying court or newspaper reporting might have just begun learning practical shorthand.

The mark of a good court reporter was to avoid becoming ‘rattled’ by rapid, nervous speakers, or speakers who used unfamiliar words or phrases.  Shorthand also required a good vocabulary, which aided stenographers in deciphering and recomposing their messages from their notes later.  Even the most professional reporters could become rattled.  Transcription of a speech also required specialized knowledge of its contents.  One story well-known among 19th century shorthand men told of a reporter who recorded “Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed major veritas” and then transcribed “I may cuss Plato, I may cuss Socrates, and Major Verrytus”.

The pay was best in the government positions, which were few and hard to land.  After that, the most lucrative work was found in the taking court cases and the pleas of lawyers.  This work was mostly reserved for firms who employed shorthand men.  In the early 1890’s, these men, serving as court and general reporters, could earn incomes ranging from $2000 to $1000 a year.  Some earned as much as $5,000.  Salaries of the average shorthand reporter usually topped out at about $40 a week; in smaller cities, these salaries topped out at $25 a week in 1892.

In general, women stenographic amanuenses could command about $12 a week in the northern and eastern cities of the United States, about $8 a week in others.  The best earned salaries of approximately $15 a week.  Some men took work as amanuenses in hopes of advancing into roles of private secretaries and confidential men.  In the 1890’s, shorthand was still seen as a valuable skill in business to be used as a stepping stone into more lucrative and influential positions.

The study and use of shorthand has waned during the last several decades, as more modern recording devices have been introduced.  It is still used in some medical circles for writing notes on medical correspondence or in charts, probably for the privacy that writing in a sort of code provides.  And, that was actually one of the characteristics that led to shorthand’s rise.  Before the Civil War, writers of shorthand mostly used it to write down their thoughts or to secretly record the discussions of others.  Many used shorthand to write their own diaries and journals.


If Ancestors Could Talk: Their History Captured in Our Words.

This weekend, I’ll venture outside the borders of New England and write some words about, well . . . words.  History resides everywhere – in the fieldstone foundations of our cellars, in the names we carry, and in the genes and traits we pass from generation to generation.  History also resides in the very words we speak when we talk about history.

There’s history in each word of those three sentences that start this post.  Take the word ‘weekend’.  As a combination of the words ‘week’ and ‘end’, there’s evidence that it has existed since the 1630’s and meant originally the period between Saturday noon and Monday morning.  As a two-day period including all of Saturday and Sunday, the word ‘weekend’ didn’t become commonly used until the 1870’s.  (Interestingly, the word ‘weekday’, meaning any day other than Sunday, predates the word ‘weekend’ by some 1000 years.)  Weekends, as two-day events, have 19th-century labor organizers to thank for their existence.  As workers left farms for the cities in search of employment, they adapted to lives set by the rhythms of their employers’ clocks.  As workweeks shrunk back to five days, the designation of Sunday as the laborers’ day of rest was an easy choice; Saturdays were chosen to accommodate the Sabbath of the considerable number of Jewish immigrants arriving to the US during the latter half of the 1800’s.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript; Image via Wikipedia

Although the word ‘weekend’ didn’t arrive into English until relatively recently, its component words of ‘week’ and ‘end’ date to the Old English period, which spans the years 450 to about 1100.  There’s evidence to suggest that the Romans introduced the concept of a week to the English, or – better said – to the people whose descendants would one day speak English.  The Romans arrived in Britain as conquerors during the first century, AD, and brought with them their neatly-set out 28-day lunar cycles, which were divided into four seven-day weeks.  The word ‘end’ is also quite ancient in the English language, dating back to the Old English period as well, and also arrives to English via earlier ancestor languages.

Now, consider the word ‘very’.  The word didn’t exist in English before the middle of the 1200’s, when it was adapted from the Anglo-French verrai.  It didn’t take on its current meaning of ‘greatly’ until two centuries later.  Modern English has many words adopted from medieval French.  By some estimates, some 10,000 words entered English during the Middle Ages; most of those words are still in use today.  These Anglo-French words owe their existence in English to the outcome of one of history’s most influential battles – the Battle of Hastings, fought on an English battlefield on October 14, 1066.  The implications of that battle’s outcome to English, European, and even world history far surpass the scope of this post.  However, from a linguistic perspective, imagine English without the italicized words of the first three sentences above.  Each of those words descends from French, as it was spoken during the Middle Ages by the Norman conquerors and their Anglo-Norman descendants who followed them.

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

With the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, English passed from its Old English period into the Middle English period.  Grammar changed; spelling changed, but so did vocabulary.  French words replaced English ones.  In some cases, both English and French words co-existed, with the French words becoming the more formal choice among near-synonyms.  As the upper classes of society either became Anglo-Norman, or at least increased their interactions with them, French words came to describe culture, aristocratic life, politics, and religion, while English words continued to describe everyday life as it was experienced by the peasantry.

In the field of linguistics, the concept known as ‘register’ basically provides an academic term to describe that tendency people have to adjust their word choice and pronunciation, based on their audience.  People do this today – and they did it in the Middle Ages, as well.  To return to the sentences above, ‘venture’ is a higher-register verb than, say, ‘go’, and ‘resides’ is of a higher register than ‘lives’.  Similarly, as you ascend up the linguistic register in Modern English, a ‘chat’ may become a ‘discussion’, which could then evolve into a ‘dialogue’.

Some nuances associated with these modern linguistic registers can be traced to the Norman conquest of England.  As we’ve said, when the Norman aristocracy replaced its English predecessor in the years following the 1066 Battle of Hastings, the English language experienced a large influx of Norman-French words into its vocabulary.   Many of these new words replaced their English counterparts.  Some were added to the English language and existed alongside the English words.

Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, Musée Condé, Chantilly, via Wikipedia

One example involves food.  While animals grown by the Anglo-Saxon peasants kept their names, the food they eventually came to be was described using inherited words derived from the French that the Anglo-Norman nobility found more familiar.  These distinctions remain today, almost 1000 years later.  While the peasants raised pigs, chickens, and calves, their Anglo-Norman overlords ate pork, poultry, and veal.  Similarly, amongst themselves, English-speaking peasants might have spoken about meeting a ‘seller’ in the ‘wood’.  If they were talking with the Anglo-Normans, they might have switched to higher register words and begun speaking about meeting ‘vendors’ in the ‘forest’.

In my post on February 19, we explored the English of Eastern Massachusetts, i.e., Boston, how it’s spoken today, and how this differs from the spoken English of  the early 19th century.  This post continues the discussion, but focuses more on how the words we choose each carry their own histories.  The words of any language, English included, reflect vast stores of history.  In some cases, these words are acquired for concepts or items that are unfamiliar, as was the case with many new world items that English had no name for.  In others, change is imposed by the winning side in a war, as was the case with the Norman Conquest of England.  At any rate, careful examination of the words we use can reveal a wealth of information about our society’s and language’s history.


If Ancestors Could Talk: The Words of Nineteenth-Century New England

Eastern Massachusetts has its own way of saying things. Whether you’re drinking a tonic, or slurping a frappe, or quenching your thirst with water from a bubbler, you know you’re near Boston when the letter “r” starts migrating within sentences (think ‘supah idear’).  To linguists, New England breaks into two dialect regions:  Eastern New England and Western New England.  To speak with linguists in their jargon and to make ‘supah idears’ a topic worthy of the lecture hall, Eastern New England English, including the infamous Boston accent, is academically described as having “non-rhoticity” and as having a “broad A”.  Non-rhoticity basically means that the letter “r” is only sometimes pronounced (in words like ‘ring’ and ‘caravan’, but not in words like ‘Harvard’ or ‘yard’).  The broad “A” explains why your niece from South Boston calls you “Auntie” with the broad A of ‘saunter’ instead of pronouncing the word similar to ‘ants’.
But, if you sit down with the task of re-creating New England speech from the past, the task grows more difficult.  For one thing, as you regress back through the Victorian era, things like frappes, bubblers, and jimmies (yes, the New Englandism for “ice cream sprinkles”) begin to disappear.  And, writing phonetically – think Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn – takes some time and can try the patience of your readers.  So, how do you re-create the speech of Eastern Massachusetts in, say, 1840?
Just as regional accents or dialects exist today, is there a ‘historical accent’ that we would encounter if we were to talk to a New Englander of the mid-nineteenth century?  YouTube abounds with voice recordings of past presidents:
There’s the unforgettable accent of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who grew up in Massachusetts:
There’s the lesser-known accent of Calvin Coolidge, the nation’s 30th president, from Vermont:
James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, Image via Wikipedia

 

But, say you’re trying to get a sense of speech from even earlier, before recordings.  Say you’re trying to recreate the speech of the “common man”, or “woman”.  As you regress further and further back into the 19th century, their recorded words grow scarcer.   Unless you come across The Biglow Papers by James Russell Lowell.  In The Biglow Papers, James Russell Lowell sought to capture the speech of mid-nineteenth century New Englanders.  Published in 1848, its fame went on to inspire similar approaches to the representation of regionally influenced dialogue by Mark Twain.

So, if you could meet some of those New England-based multi-great-grandparents in your family trees, you might start to get a sense of the words they would choose and how they would pronounce them by reading The Biglow Papers.
As you read through The Biglow Papers, you’ll see familiar pronunciations of words that we still hear today:
  • ‘Actually’ becomes ‘act’lly';
  • ‘Ask’ becomes ‘ax';
  • ‘Dirt’ becomes ‘dut’.
It’s debatable whether these pronunciations are unique to New England or just the result of having less time for formal education and for worrying about things like annunciating every syllable.  It is interesting to note that pronouncing ‘ask’ as ‘ax’ isn’t unique to our living generations, as our grade school teachers may have insinuated when they were chiding us years ago.

"Kiss me quick", a humorous 1840's Currier and Ives print that would have been considered slightly naughty at the time. Image via Wikipedia

Further examination of the pronunciations and speech captured within the Biglow Papers picks up expressions like “to deacon off”, which means “to give the cue to do something”.  Years before Lowell wrote The Biglow Papers, a custom existed within New England churches that, as deacons read out hymns at Congregational services, the congregation was to sing them back, thus giving rise to the expression.

If someone within the congregation rubbed you the wrong way in their singing, or their mannerisms, he or she would have been known as a “crooked stick” in Lowell’s time.  And if you were to tell them, you might just “wake snakes” (get into trouble) for giving them “sarse” and they would grow “ferfle ugly” (very angry).  This is where the speech of early- to mid-19th century New Englanders really comes alive, and allows us a glimpse into just what our New England ancestors in our family trees might sound like if they could speak from the still images of those tintypes and paintings.

This post marks the first in a series on New England speech of the past.  Traveling across the United States exposes us to the country’s different accents.  Traveling across time, if it were possible, would probably expose us to the different accents of each historical era.  Listening to old recordings, the words, cadence, syntax of language all seem just perceptibly different.  What would our ancestors sound like, and which words and expressions would they use, if we were able to talk with them today?

1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.