Stenography – How Does It Work

blog_rachel_thorn_how_does_stenography_workStenography is a shorthand typing form that’s done on special machines that allow for the simultaneous production of a verbatim transcript that can be used, for example, in courts. Stenographers are working alongside speakers when they, for instance, produce live subtitles for television purposes.

What Do Stenographers Do?

Well-trained QWERTY typists usually are typing at a rate of 80 words a minute, and to give you an idea how fast that is: Fiona Bruce, a famous British television newsreader, is talking at approximately 180 words per minute, and Jon Stewart (no explanation needed, I guess) even more. Well, stenographers are writing at a rate of at least 200 words a minute on a tiny machine, and they are able to come up with an exact transcript in that same time. Now that’s a lot, and fast!

How Do Stenographers Do It?

To be able to type at this sort of dazzling speeds, stenographers use a different system. Instead of writing letter by letter like most us do, stenographers are writing syllable by syllable. To be able to do that, they use a special and pretty expensive stenography machine, the ‘stenograph’.

The stenograph comes with two rows of four keys at the machine’s left-hand side and two rows of five keys at the machine’s right-hand side, all to be used for consonants. The left side keys are pressed by the left hand’s four fingers, and the right side keys are for the right hand’s four fingers. In the middle of the stenograph, just under the left and right hand keys, you can find four keys that are pressed by the stenographer’s thumbs. These four key are for vowels.

The stenographer’s left hand is hitting a syllable’s first consonant, the thumbs is hitting the vowel, while the stenographer’s right hand is hitting the last consonant. The entire process is like playing harmonies or chords on a keyboard or a piano.

We Know Only 21 Consonants!

That’s right. To produce the 21 consonants, stenographers are using combinations of the available keys. For example, the letter N does not exist at all, so stenographers will, on the machine’s left-hand side, press the T, P and H key simultaneously to produce an N. Now if you want to know why this combinations is used in this case, the answer is simple: That’s just how it is!

How About The 5 Vowels?

In the world of stenography, the vowel SOUNDS of the English language is represented, not the five vowel symbols we use in written language. Stenographers use various combinations of the machine’s four vowel keys to produce the various vowel SOUNDS, instead of the vowel notations. The machine’s E key is representing the sound as in ‘set’ (SET in stenography). And when stenographers want to represent the sound ‘ee’, like in ‘seat’, they press the A, O, and E key all together (so in steno: SAOET).

Is There Any Room For Punctuation Keys On That Small Machine?

Yes, there is. Stenographers use further combinations of the limited number of available letters for the creation of a code that is representing some sort of punctuation. Many stenographers are, for example, using ‘FPLT’ when they want to indicate a full stop.

The stenograph also doesn’t have a spacebar. The machine has a paper-feeding mechanism that is turning when the keys are being pressed. Right, the steno syllables are reading vertically on the typical, long, and thin steno paper. You will understand that for live TV subtitling, the steno machine needs to be hooked up to a computer that will convert the steno ‘speak’ into understandable and legible English language.

Stenography Is Cool!

Professional stenographers require on average between 3 and 5 years of full-time professional training to be able to ‘steno’ at a rate of 200 words a minute, but mind you, they all love it and the time needed to get there is absolutely worth it! Remember that stenography is just as reliable and accurate as the stenographers themselves.