A Curriculum of Current Phonetic Shorthand

Henry Sweet’s Current Shorthand[1] is a historical curiosity twice over: once because very few people today need to learn shorthand at all or even know what it is; twice because as shorthands go, it’s completely obscure. I learned about it because the surprisingly active and enjoyable Shorthand Subreddit is populated by people who seem to really enjoy spelunking in digital archives for self-published books from the late 19th century, the heyday of shorthand, when there was actual money in designing and publicising a shorthand system of one’s own.

Nevertheless, insofar as one is already interested in learning a shorthand[2], it’s quite worth taking a look at. I think it has a combination of qualities that make it very recommendable:

  • it is efficient, compressing quite a bit of writing into a small number of strokes;
  • it is (relatively) cursive, visually and mechanically resembling longhand writing more than simple ellipses or geometrical shapes;
  • by means of the second fact, it is, visually, fairly resistent to ambiguity (I’ve talked about this before).

It’s also got some marks against it. In addition to being very complex (or at least involved, or at least deep), it is doubly inaccessible: once because the only extant text that I know about is a scanned PDF of Sweet’s own handwritten (!) manual from 1892, and twice due to the fact that the manual is, frankly, not well-laid out.

Part of it is that Sweet was a phonetician before phonetics was a thing; his vocabulary around different sounds is not the same as we would use. More difficult is that the signs are actually quite systematic but Sweet often leaves the system implicit; there are a few places that his choice of symbol names in fact obscures their relationships to other symbols.

I’d like to try to lay out some of the same information contained in the manual in a more systematic and searchable way. Let’s see if it works out.

Some preliminary remarks

Like other phonetic shorthands, the basic principle of Current is to represent spoken or written language with a sequence of written symbols. The symbols are more numerous, and each one simpler, than the letters of the alphabet, so that more can be written, more quickly, than if you spelled the equivalent language out. The symbols making up a single word (or sometimes group of words) are written together, without taking the pen off the page (as in cursive writing), as that speeds things up as well.

Generally speaking, especially at first, Current can be approached word-by-word. And since we’re dealing with the phonetic variant, the outline for a word can be the symbols for all of its sounds written together.

Finally, to write more quickly, a number of other techniques will be used. These include:

  • leaving out certain sounds;
  • using distinct symbols for common sequences of more than one sound;
  • using distinct symbols for common words.

We’ll start with the most basic part of the symbol inventory: the symbols that make up the basic sounds of spoken English[3]. Anyone who knows them all will be able write (and read back) any English whatsoever; everything that comes afterwards will simply make the process of writing more efficient.

The basic sounds can, of course, be divided into consonants and vowels.

Consonants

Consonants, generally, are represented by full-letter-sized symbols.

Heights

Full symbols have four heights:

  • short, as in the height of a lower-case x;
  • high, as in the height of a lower-case l or upper-case I;
  • low, as in the height of a lower-case y;
  • tall, which extends from the top of an l to the bottom of a y.[4]

Stroke Consonants

The atom of current shorthand is the connected vertical downstroke. Because Current mimics normal handwriting, it’s pretty tolerant of different degrees of slant, so “vertical” here is a relative rather than absolute term.

A vertical stroke is connected by the upward stroke that leads into it and the upward stroke that leads from it. There are two ways to connect into those strokes: with a curve, and with a sharp angle.

\[2 \text{ points of connection} × 2 \text{ ways to connect} = 4 \text{ styles of stroke:}\]

starting from an angle starting from a curve
leading into an angle
leading into a curve

Constructing a matrix of heights and styles gives us the most basic strokes.

\[4 \text{ styles of stroke} × 4 \text{ heights} = 16 \text{ strokes:}\]

stroke curve-stroke stroke-curve curve-stroke-curve
short t d n r
high p b m kw
low k g ng ly
tall tsh dzh ny ry

Arranged thus it’s hopefully evident that there’s an order to what sign goes with what sound. Sweet is particularly hot on the correspondence between where in the mouth a sound is articulated and where it’s placed, vertically, on the page (the man was a phonetician), which I think is less helpful; however, especially in the upper-left of the matrix, it hangs together ok.

The basic strokes stand for unvoiced sounds, and the curve-strokes stand for their voiced counterparts. It’s hopefully useful and intuitive that /t/ goes with /d/, /k/ with /g/, and so forth.

Similarly, /tsh/ (usually written “ch”, like “cheer” and “cheek”) and /dzh/ (one of the sounds made by “g” or “j”, as in “George”) go together.

The third column is the nasals; in English there isn’t a voiced/unvoiced distinction for them.

The fourth column hangs together less cleanly. A short curve-stroke-curve stands for /r/, which is obviously very common in English; the rest of the column is left over for certain consonants followed by glide vowels.

Loop Consonants

The second basic element of the vocabulary is the loop, which as a term is hopefully self-explanatory.

Loops can have the same heights as strokes; however, there are only two types of loop:

  • regular, where the pen starts from the bottom-left, forms a loop, and continues to the bottom-right:
  • inverted, where the pen starts from the upper-left, forms a loop downwards, and continues to the upper-right:

\[2 \text{ styles of loop} × 4 \text{ heights} = 8 \text{ loops:}\]

loop inverted loop
short s z
high f v
low zh sh
tall nzh nsh

The loops are used for what Sweet calls hiss sounds but what we’d call fricatives, and mostly sibilants. The voiced/unvoiced relationship of orientation is in place, which is very helpful.

Less helpful is the fact that it swaps midway through. In the first two rows, the left side is unvoiced and the right side is voiced. In the bottom two, we swap over. Sweet’s rationale for this is that /sh/ is more common, and that the low inverted loop is easier to write. I’m sure he’s right, but I don’t know if it’s worth the added cognitive load.

The tall loops are left for blends involving /n/ + /the sound made by their low counterparts/. These are more useful than they seem at first glance, since in practice /nsh/ also works for /ntsh/ (as in “inch”) and /nzh/ also works for /ndzh/ (as in “change”).

Rings

We’ve covered nearly all the consonants under the above two theories, but there are a few stagglers that don’t fit neatly.

The “canonical” form of /h/, so to speak, is an elongated low ring.

There are two sounds, voiced /th/ and unvoiced /dh/, represented by “th”. They are both short.

All three are written starting from the top.

ring half ring
short th dh
low h

It’s important to note, however, that /h/ is much more commonly written as a long diagonal stroke beginning below the line of writing, like so:

Semivowels

The semivowels (or glides) are both written with what Sweet calls the “flat curve”:

These are also started from the top.

flat curve
high w
low y

As we’ve already seen, though, there are some blends with /w/ and /y/ that are useful to know as these symbols are a bit awkward to write in the middle of a word.

Wave

The final consonant to cover is /l/, which is written with a “wave”, or what we might now call a tilde: . It’s hard to classify it by height, though I suppose technically it’s short. But in reality it’s the only consonant whose overall height is less than that of an x.

One result of this is that it can be comfortably written on the line or at around x height. The former generally is used when /l/ is not preceded by a vowel, while the latter is generally used when it is.

Vowels

The vowels of Current are… numerous. The principle of their general use is the same as most other phonetic shorthands: in writing, leave them out whenever possible. A word written like fnctshn or cmptr is often completely intelligible, especially written in context.

This principle is particularly important in light of one of Sweet’s basic principles of writing vowels: “medially, all weak vowels are expressed by the stroke.” That is, the short upward connecting stroke between two consonants should be the standard way of representing an unstressed vowel in the middle of a word.

This is perfectly sensible and more-or-less the default, as I say; however, some of the more finicky elements of the shorthand arise when Sweet tries to ensure that principle’s inverse: the presence of a short, connecting stroke should imply the presence of an unstressed vowel in the middle of a word. This would require that we strictly draw two consonants without any intervening stroke if there’s no vowel (or otherwise use a consonant blend, which are very plentiful and pretty crucial in practice). I say good luck: in order to make your outlines intelligible, you’ll sometimes have to have some space between two consonants even if there’s no vowel between them. Don’t sweat it.

This is an area where there won’t be a very satisfactory way of representing the sounds: Sweet’s notation for vowels is pretty straightforward but archaic; but then again, it’s not very practical to require the interested reader to know IPA as well. I’m going to try to represent them with words that obviously demonstrate them, after John C. Wells.

Positions

While consonants are some kind of letter-form of at least x height, vowels are generally smaller: roughly half x-height. Ordinarily, all vowels live within the x space, and therefore have two positions:

  • “low-mid”, which sits at the baseline of writing: ;
  • “high-mid”, which sits at the top of the x: .

Hooks

The most basic form of vowel sign is the hook, which is just a single horizontal curve: .

Hooks have two orientations:

  • up, with the two ends of the curve pointing up:
  • down, with the two ends of the curve pointing down:

Hooks have two lengths:

  • short, about half the width of an x:
  • long, about the full width of an x (or longer, as is useful):

Generally speaking, the long versions of the symbols are the “longer” of the pair.

\[2 \text{ positions} × 2 \text{ orientations} × 2 \text{ lengths} = 8 \text{ hooks:}\]

low-mid hooks

hook long hook
up PRICE[5] PALM
down TRAP

high-mid hooks

hook long hook
up KIT[5] FLEECE[5]
down DRESS[6] FACE[6]

Double Hooks

Double hooks can vary along all the same dimensions as single hooks; they just consist of two curves written together.

\[2 \text{ positions} × 2 \text{ orientations} × 2 \text{ lengths} = 8 \text{ double hooks:}\]

low-mid double hooks

double long double
up FOOT GOOSE
down POOR

high-mid double hooks

double hook long double hook
up UNITE USE
down FUEL

Both the down and the high-mid versions deserve a little explanation:

  • double down-hooks represent the same sound as their up-hook counterparts, but with a schwa /ə/ at the end.[7]
  • high-mid double hooks represent a /u/ sound, just like the low-mid ones, but with a /y/ in front.

The distinction between the short /yu/, like the first vowel in “unite”, and the long /yuu/, like the vowel in “use”, is often subtle enough to be disregarded when writing.

Vowel loops

The next class of vowel symbol is the (little) loop. It’s about the size of an up- or down-hook; however, instead of a horizontal curve it’s a completed circle.

Just as with their full-size consontantal counterparts, loops can be regular or inverted. To help distinguish them from the bigger versions we will say:

  • up, where the pen starts from the bottom-left, forms a loop, and continues to the bottom-right:
  • down, where the pen starts from the upper-left, forms a loop downwards, and continues to the upper-right:

If a loop is the first symbol in an outline, we need to be able to distinguish up from down since obviously there will be no connecting stroke to connect from. Therefore up loops are not closed if they’re the first part of any outline: . This principle will hold for any of the up-loop variants.

\[2 \text{ positions} × 2 \text{ orientations} × 2 \text{ lengths} = 8 \text{ loops:}\]

low-mid loops

loop long loop
up MOUTH[5] GOAT[5]
down STRUT SQUARE

high-mid loops

loop long loop
up CLOTH[5] THOUGHT[5]
down AROUND[6] NURSE

To come: Arbitraries, Consonant Groups, Rising Consonants, Finals, Implied Characters, Contraction, Word Omission, Limbs, Signs

The foregoing, insofar as curricula go, is demonstrably not much of a curriculum at all. For one thing, there are no samples of full outlines at all. This document is at very best a supplement to Sweet’s original manual. Hopefully it presents a more systematic introduction to the core elements, which are themselves the most systematic of the overall theory.

Needless to say, there are many elements in the latter part of the section that are arranged systematically and demonstrate productive principles (rather than just being bags of arbitrarily drawn words). In time I hope to get those together too.


this article has been amended based on feedback from the kind folks at r/shorthand.


  1. Current comprises two separate but simpilar systems: Orthographic, which represents spelling; and Phonetic, which represents sound. I think that he imagined a practitioner would learn both. I haven’t, and I don’t think you need to either. I learned Phonetic; an interested reader can probably choose either one.  ↩

  2. I will assume in this article that the reader has already passed that threshold.  ↩

  3. It’s at this point that an uncomfortable truth must be outed: Sweet was English, spoke in Received Pronunciation, and designed his system to reflect that fact. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to the vowels: in RP British English, of course, “r” after a vowel is usually not pronounced as a consonant. Sometimes it is omitted entirely; sometimes it lengthens a preceding /a/ into PALM vowel; sometimes it’s realized as a schwa.

    Current reflects this fact and, frankly, is at its best from a phonetic perspective when the phonetics in question are RP rather than American. As an example: it’s quite awkward indeed to write an /r/ sound after most vowels. It’s easier by far to write out how it would sound in your best British accent. In practice, this becomes quite natural.  ↩

  4. tall is a bad name, unnecessarily confusable with high. Full would be more appropriate.  ↩

  5. Any of these vowels can have a small up-loop added after them, without any ambiguity, to indicate that vowel followed by a schwa. This, along with the special double-down-hook forms for the /u/ vowels, provides a way to follow every possible vowel by a schwa.

    The utility of this is a little more obvious in light of the fact that the phonetics in question is British Received Pronunciation. In nearly every occasion that one would follow a vowel by an “r”—examples Sweet gives include “carrier”, “career”, shower“, ”follower"—it would be realized in pronunciation as a schwa.  ↩

  6. The DRESS, FACE, and schwa vowels, in particular, are usually not necessary to write out with their full canonical symbols. The DRESS and schwa vowels can usually be written with the short stroke, and the long stroke, written from the baseline (as opposed from below it), is a more convenient synonym for the FACE vowel. These symbols only usually come into play when used in contractions or word signs.  ↩

  7. This, along with the [5] vowels, completes an inventory of vowels followed by a schwa. This is, as previously noted, particularly important in a phonetic system based on Received Pronunciation, where segments that an American would pronounce as the r-colored vowel /ɚ/ or as a schwa followed by an r /ər/ would instead be pronounced as a bare schwa /ə/.