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VMs: Re: More shorthand trivia
Yet more shorthand-related stuff.
While in Leeds for a few days, I got a reader's pass for the University
Library, which houses the Brotherton Shorthand Collection. Talking with
Oliver Pickering, the only LIbrarian there who seemed to know anything
about it, it became clear that shorthand is incredibly unfashionable as a
I read a number of books on shorthand: one of the problems with the subject
is that most authors on the history of shorthand tend to be proponents of a
particular new system, and thus read the events in a way designed to
support their own views. Perhaps this is true of history in general.
Isaac Pitman's "A history of shorthand" (I read the 1891 edition, though
there are others) mentions a shorthand system designed by a Mr Radcliff (or
Ratcliffe) of Plymouth, apparently first published in 1688, but believed to
have been designed at least a century earlier.
Radcliff's system was based on aggressive textual reduction, discarding
vowels and stopping words short once it was apparent what they were: the
Lord's Prayer, for example, became:
Our Fth wch rt n hvn ; hlwd b y Nm
Y Kgdm cm Y wl b dn n rth z it s n Hvn
As far as Bright goes: in 1572, he spent some time in Paris, and found his
way to the embassy while the massacre of the Huguenots was happening - he
too was a Protestant, staying with Huguenots, and was lucky to escape being
caught in the middle of that particular storm.
As I mentioned in a previous email, Paris had had a guild of tabletiers
(wax tablet makers) for many centuries, so my current best guess is that
Bright saw, on his trip there, abbreviated letters being used to take down
sermons on a wax tablet.
To stand any chance of keeping up with the flow of natural speech, just
about any abbreviated alphabet (rather than an extended alphabet) would
need to have the property of being, like the VMS, based on single strokes.
So: I believe that Bright's particular innovation was the arbitraries,
rather than single-stroke alphabets per se - I believe that these would
have been in existence long before him.
Curiously, the gallows characters - if viewed as a framework for writing
X's quickly - fit this kind of shorthand paradigm very well. This points to
a shorthand whose primary mode for representing numbers was Roman numerals
- "37" is always going to be quicker to write than "XXXVII", however you
encode it. Perhaps this alone points to a pre-1500 date for the VMS' core
I'm confident that this is the real deal: that the VMS' alphabet is a
mature, well-known shorthand script, that had been used (possibly for
centuries) for transcribing the spoken word (probably in a religious
context, but other writing contexts are entirely possible) onto wax tablets.
Also, remember that, circa 1450, code-book extensions to ciphers were well
known and widely used: for example, many of them are boxed modern numbers
(ie,  = The Pope,  = The King Of France, etc). These form a simple
kind of data compression - which would be just as important for a shorthand
scribe as for a code-maker. But where did the idea of number codes *come from*?
Here's my current belief: that the alphabet we see in the VMS is a
shorthand alphabet, designed for writing on a wax tablet, but containing a
specific number code to help keep the shorthand scribe's writing up to
speed. This general idea arose on the continent round about 1400 - and
forms the raw concept from which the idea of code-book ciphers arose.
GC's absolutely right: stenography and steganography were twins, grown from
the same seed - but with the VMS, we may be looking at that very seed!
Cheers, .....Nick Pelling.....