The method and madness of invention

I decided early on in life to not limit myself to doing only those things other people were willing to pay me to do. This resolve had one predictable consequence: Poverty.

When I went to college in the early 70's I lived on the streets in a plywood box I built myself that sat on the back of a '54 red and blue spray-painted Ford pickup. Over the summers I abandoned the truck, and, with my trusty Army blanket, I hit the road as a migrant farmworker. I liked the per diem work and random encounters, and made enough in about six weeks to pay my expenses the rest of the year.

After only a few years at a community college I wised up and realized I could learn more, faster, for less money, and without all the annoying busy work by feeding directly from the trough of knowledge. Accordingly I moved to the student ghetto of Isla Vista near Santa Barbara and spent the better part of my days and nights wandering the stacks at the UCSB library where I pursued.... whatever interested me at the time (e.g. string figures). Summers were still spent attending URL (University of Real Life) as a fruit tramp.

During this time I took an interest in English orthography and the various attempts at reform thereof. I had been a rather poor student of English, received exceptionally low grades, but suspected that my inability to grasp, among other mysteries, the rules that would allow me to correctly spell all words was not entirely due to defects residing solely within me, as many English teachers had lead me to believe. I suspected that my Mother Tongue fell short of perfection, that things were worse than They wanted us to know (and they are).

Spelling reform seemed as hopeless as it was sensible, so I ventured into a study of phonetics for several months. An interest in phonemes lead to an interest in graphemes and various writing systems--shorthand (many), Bell's Visible Speech, Blissymbolics, even Japanese. I realized that English was perfectly phonetic after all, that it was just the way we wrote it that sucked. There's just something irritating about a writing system that is only about 40% phonetic and 60% whatever.

However, once the 50K or so most commonly used words become familiar (are automatically recognized at a glance), printed English is quite readable, quite well adapted to the eye. It may not be well adapted to the brains trying to spell it, but it works for the purpose of being read. As for all the kids, functionally illiterate adults, and ESL students who haven't gotten over the hump: Too bad, I guess.

Writing TO (traditional orthography) is another matter. Printing by hand is readable, but ill adapted to the hand. It is painfully slow unless you're a monk/scribe who cares little about time or effort in which case it is just slow. Longhand takes some of the rough edges off, but is only marginally faster to write. I thought about learning shorthand to take notes faster and render any journal keeping unreadable by virtually all.

I liked the look of Gregg Shorthand; the symbols used, and undertook a study of it. While supposedly phonetic, I soon discovered it to be a confused mix of phonetic and TO usage. There wasn't enough symbols even to write all the consonant sounds, and vowels could only be hinted at. Only outlines of words could be written that merely suggested what the word might be (unless you memorized them as ideographs)--it was worse even than TO. The system was well suited for the purpose of taking business dictation, serving as a sort of mnemonic outline of someone's utterances until they could be transcribed, but it was too abbreviated for personal use. I looked into Pitman, and any others I could find, but none suited me.

I came across a copy of Godfrey Dewey's "The Relative Frequency of English Speech Sounds" which is a treasure trove of information, not just about the frequency of phonemes, but of syllables and words as well. I thought that with such information one could design a really slick phonetic handwriting system. It wouldn't be too hard--just make a good match of symbol to sound.

For symbols, why not use simple ones--single lines and curves in various directions and of different lengths? Curves could be either circular (as in Pitman Shorthand) or elliptical (as in Gregg), and I picked elliptical as being the more cursive. I then created a large matrix with all possible symbols written across the top and again down the side. I then filled in the boxes with all possible combinations to see how they went together. Some combined awkwardly, while other combinations were more felicitous just as some consonants blend well together (like "br" and "fl"), and others not at all. My object was to find the best match between sound and symbol, factoring in frequency, so the best symbols could be assigned to the most frequent sounds. In so far as possible, symbols that blend well together should represent sounds that blend well together.

When I finished this project, I realized that I had succeed only in duplicating the work of John Robert Gregg who must have done something very much the same as I had. His choice of symbols to represent consonant sounds was about as good a match between sounds and symbols as one could make. Since I cared only about finding the best match and felt no need to be original, I adopted Gregg's consonant symbols in so far as possible (about 65% the same)--changing some and adding other symbols so all consonant sounds could be written.

The next project was to find a way to represent all necessary vowels. Pitman had used diacritical marks added to the consonant outline, but I wanted to avoid that. How to do so was a real puzzler, but persistent tinkering lead eventually to a successful solution.

I was aware that one reason Dewey had compiled data on the relative frequency of English speech sounds was to design his own phonetic handwriting system, but I could find out nothing about it. I was very curious to learn what his solution had been to the same problem I was working on.

Until I found out, my research was incomplete, so I hitchhiked to Berkley to see what I could find in the UCB library. I found a shorthand bibliography with some 5,000 references. I also found out that the library with the most complete collection of shorthand material was the New York City Public Library.

So, it seemed, I needed to go to Manhattan.

During the following summer I heard from a friend, Pedro, whom I had worked with a few summers earlier in a farm labor camp near Modesto. He had just been laid off, and wanted to know if I wanted to go to Bakersfield to look for work. Pedro had moved up in the world, having acquired an apartment in LA, a wife, and a car. Such things tend to require money to maintain, so with a friend of his from Columbia, we drove off to the Big Valley, the land of farm labor.

We found work picking grapes for raisins. This involves filling a large pan, laying down a sheet of paper called a "tray," and spreading the grapes on it to dry. Not too complicated, but the catch was that to get paid you had to finish the row you were working on. This was troubling, as the rows were so long we could not see the end of them. It took us three days to pick one row each. I got 11 cents for each tray, which came to $34 after deductions.

With that much money I could go to NYC, so I did.

I had hopped freight trains between Bakersfield and northern Washington, following the crops with the other tramps, but had never ventured east. Some of the old tramps had told me how to ride the trains to New York (which lines to take to which cities), and so guided only by secondhand information, I bid my friends goodbye, and set out to Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, and Denver. From Denver to Chicago I stayed on the train for 35 hours without getting off. I wandered the Chicago yards for many hours, but my fund of outdated knowledge failed me and no local knowledge could be found. Finally some rather nice railroad security guys explained why riding the trains further east might be too problematical, given that the government was now running them, and suggested hitchhiking might prove more successful. I agreed and they were good enough to give me a ride to the nearest highway.

I entered Manhattan in a semi-rig, which was odd since truckers hardly ever pick up hitchhikers, contrary to what Hollywood seems to think. I made my way to that Great Trough of Knowledge, the NYC Main Library, and reverently sat in the Great Reading Room. I found that what I was looking for was in the annex building some blocks away, so for the next week for so I read everything I wanted to know about numerous shorthand systems, including the one Dewey came up with.

Satiated, in spite of selling blood to help pay for my studies, I left the Big Apple, though not without having taken time for a good deal of urban hiking by day and night. When I left I still had seven dollars in my pocket. It took me seven days to hitchhike back to California, and I still had a dollar and some change remaining when I got there. Yes, those were the days.

Although the trip was successful in that I completed my research, I learned nothing that added to or aided my work. I continued to make some refinements, but feeling that I had finished the handwriting project, I moved on to other interests.

I had enjoyed the problem and the challenge of solving it, and that was enough. At least I was not crazy enough to think that the world was going to beat a path to my door (even if I had had one). Fortunately, the act of creation is its own reward. It was all fun, even if in a crazy sort of way, and I went on to have even more fun working hard on other quixotic, unprofitable endeavors.

Now that the Internet allows any fool to self-publish for the price of a little typing, I'm thinking that the six or so people out there who would be keenly interested in my handwriting system (folks who are probably, even now as I type, working hard on their own systems) can just click a few times on their mouse and find out all about Handywrite without even having to hop a freight train or hitchhike across a continent. Now that's progress for you.

Best Regards,

Eric Lee

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External Links

  • Easyscript
  • Learn a bit about this commercialized shorthand.

  • Keyscript
  • Learn a bit about this relatively new alphabetic shorthand.

  • IPA
  • The International Phonetic Association.

  • Unifon
  • A one sound one letter alphabet.

Handywrite at 40 words per minute.

Handywrite at 80 words per minute.

Handywrite at 100 words per minute.

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