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  • Bruce Baker

Shorthand A Lost Art Discovered

While looking for a stapler in Honors room in the Mott building, I stumbled upon a stash of notebooks - 30 simple, spiral bound notebooks. As a journalist, I felt obligated to snoop further. I opened the closest note-book to examine the contents. I wassurprised when the notebook did not yield a recognizable set of words. The writing seemed alien. The pages of every notebook were filled with an elliptical series of curves and markings. Shorthand.

My curiosity peaked.

In the end, I discovered these notebooks belonged to former Olivet College employee, Ponja Vahs. Vahs came to Olivet from California Lutheran University in 1997 when Olivet College hired her bosses, James Halseth and Hoda Mahmoudi as dean andassociate dean of Olivet College.

“As some OC employees know,I wore many hats during my 17 years there. I was part of the Judicial Board, co-advisor with Mike Fales, of the National Honor Society ODK, advisor of Kappa Sigma Alpha, and Faculty Marshal for the college,” said Vahs.

Vahs learned Gregg Shorthand at Midland High Schoolin 1957 and 1958. “Most of my life I’ve had

jobs where I used shorthand – dictation from bosses (most interesting was William Hanna at Hanna-Barbera in Hollywood), board meet-ings, judicial hearings, interviews for both Dean, and a presi-dent of OC,” said Vahs. Most of the notebooks left behind in the Honors room were from judicials.

According to Dennis Hoillier, in his article, “How to write 225 words per minute with a pen,” English speaking students, business professionals, court reporters, and secretaries used a specific form of shorthand, called Gregg Shorthand, to take hand written notes at impressive speeds. The form was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. For over 100 years this was the prevailing way for Americans to take notes. Anyone wishing to become a secretary had to demonstrate his/her ability to write 150 words per minute, while court reporters needed to write 225 words per minute with 90 percent accuracy. Gregg Shorthand was taught in American schools as recently as the 1970s. Yet, like the horseshoe and the blacksmith, the art of Gregg Shorthand has faded into obscurity.

Gregg Shorthand uses a simpler alphabet than the longhand Roman alphabet. The speed of this method comes from several characteristics. First, the number of pen strokes necessary to represent words in Gregg shorthand is significantly less than that of long hand. Second, the alphabet if phonetic, allowing writers to eliminate silent letters. According to Gregg, “Using this principle, thousands of long, Latinate words are shortened to three or four letters in Gregg:“a-b-a-nd” for “abandon,” “h-u-nd” for hundred, “n-a-sh” for “nation”...” Thirdly, Gregg Shorthand uses many of the alphabetical symbols to abbreviate and represent common words, common word endings, and common phrases. These abbreviations eliminate the need to fully write thousands of words.

As with many technologies shorthand, and those who made their living using shorthand, were replaced by personal computers. Executives no longer needed to dictate notes to secretaries when they could type up statements at roughly the same speed. With computers taking over every area of life, institutions everywhere sought to cut costs by eliminating secretarial workers in favor of computers. Yet, if Vahs’ notebooks are any indicator, there are still uses for it.

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