What Is A Stenographic Machine – How Does It Work?

Have you ever wondered what that thing is that court reporters are always using?

Well, that thing is called a stenographic machine, or ‘stenograph’. This type of machines is also used to produce captions for TV broadcasts, live streaming transcripts at meetings and at schools, and for office stenography in general. Stenographs are working a bit like portable word processors, but they have a modified keyboard with 22 buttons instead of a standard keyboard.

Modern stenographs include two rows of consonant keys on each side, placed underneath a ‘number bar’, and in front are four keys for the vowels A, O, E, and U.

Now how do stenographers work? Court stenographers may be typing entire words if they strike more keys at the same time. The left keys are for spelling the beginning letter of a syllable, and the right hand keys are for the last letter. The stenographer presses all relevant keys at the same time, and the stenographic machine will come up with an alphabet soup that is unintelligible for persons who are not trained to read machine shorthand.

Stenographers are spelling out syllables in phonetics, though there are not enough keys on the machine’s keyboard to include every sound of our speech, so to interpret the consonants that are not represented, they use specific combinations of the keys. There is, for example, no ‘M’ on the stenograph’s keyboard, so they press ‘P’ and ‘H’ together if they want to produce a syllable that starts with ‘M’.

On the left side there’s no ‘B’, but there is a ‘B’ on the right side keyboard. So for a syllable that ends with ‘B’, there’s no problem, but if they want to start a word or syllable with ‘B’, they will hit ‘P’ and ‘W’ together.

Each individual court reporter may use a variety of conventions to represent a homonym or another ambiguous word. When you got to court-reporting school, you will be taught several different shorthand ‘theories’, all with different general rules and different approaches. Usually, experienced stenographers will use their own system of abbreviations, particularly for phrases and words that are specific for their work.

To give you an example: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury’ may very well be abbreviated to just one quick stroke, and so could the standard phrase: ‘May it please the court.’

In former days, what a stenographer had typed onto the machine would be printed to a narrow roll of paper tape. Later in the process, the stenographer translated these notes back into English, and if requested, another stenographer (a so-called ‘scopist’) would be checking the translation.

Nowadays the translation is computerized and modern-day stenographic machines are providing translations at the same time. The narrow paper tape is still recording the original notes, yet these modern machines come with an LCD display that is showing the words in for us understandable English.

Court reporters usually save their individual spelling and abbreviation system in a personal dictionary on their computers at home. Their personal dictionaries then generally are transferred to the stenographic machine they are using, and up-to-date stenograps come with USB ports and floppy-disk drives.

They can even further customize their machines, down to each individual key’s sensitivity! The adaptions may even reflect each of the stenographer’s finger strength, for example the ‘L’ key is usually made a little less sensitive, as it is at a place where the finger may sag easily and accidentally touches the key.

Practically all stenographers have machines that are customized specifically to them, and for the specific tasks they have to perform. These machines don’t come cheap. A new top-of-the-line stenographic machine will set you back up to $5,000, and a decent training model will cost slightly over $1,100. Over the past decade, increasingly more court reporters started to utilize the far less-expensive ‘stenomask’ technology.

With this method, ‘verbatim’ reporters are holding a microphone close to their mouths while repeating every word they hear. They wear a mask and their voice is silenced. A voice-recognition computer program then translates the recordings into printed texts as they are made, or later on in the process.