Wednesday, 22 June 2022

From Thought to Page: Adventures With Teeline Shorthand and Other Writing Systems

In a previous article describing how I distract myself when I’m feeling low, I mentioned that I’d begun learning shorthand. Progress has been slow and I’ve taken a couple of breaks, but I haven’t given up. Last week, a friend asked why I find shorthand so interesting. Her question prompted me to think about my fascination with various writing systems over the years, including practical techniques that help me get my ideas onto the page or screen as simply and easily as possible.

Pitman and Elvish: My Teenage Years

My interest in writing systems goes back to my teenage years. (That’s a long time ago, before anyone asks!) My mother gifted me a book on Pitman shorthand which she’d used herself when she worked in an office. I can still hear her reciting the consonants as an aide to memorising them: “bee, pee, dee, tee, jay, chay ...”

About the same time, I discovered the Middle-earth fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. I was captivated by the complexity of the world he’d created, with its various races, languages, and writing systems. I taught myself the Dwarf runes and their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, but it was the Elven Tengwar that truly captured my imagination. I learned the English mode well enough to correspond with one friend for a time after we left school for university. Decades later, I’d return to the Tengwar as the basis of the Life, Leaf & Stone system of self-exploration and divination.

It’s hard to explain my early interest in these alternative writing systems, but aesthetics was an important aspect of it. The angular runes appealed less to me than the flowing lines of Pitman shorthand and the Tengwar. I was inspired to develop a writing system of my own. This included both curved and angular letters, but I worked at it until I was happy with how it looked and functioned.

University Note-Taking

I took all my university lecture notes longhand, copying or occasionally typing them up afterwards. I wasn’t proficient enough to use Pitman, and my own writing system wasn’t designed for speed. Instead, I developed abbreviations for frequently used words and phrases to help me keep up with my tutors and lecturers. Most were specific to my degree subject — pharmacy — but there are a few I still use to this day.

My Daily Diary

Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never used any form of shorthand or secret writing in my personal diaries, which I’ve kept since I was fourteen. I shun even common abbreviations, preferring to write everything out in full.

Palm Grafiti

As some point I bought a Palm IIIxe PDA device, and taught myself the stylised Graffiti input system it uses for text entry. I wrote a large number of articles and short stories on that device. Editing was far easier on my PC, but the PDA was fast and efficient for capturing my ideas and converting them into words. Somehow, the fact I was writing on the screen using a stylus, mimicking the use of a pen or pencil on paper, helped me write creatively.

Android Shortcuts

My PDA served me well for several years but eventually I migrated to an Android mobile phone. There is a Graffiti app for Android, but I never had much success with it. After some experimentation, I settled on the SwiftKey keyboard. What I love most about Swiftkey is the ability to save shortcuts for names, words, and phrases I use frequently or struggle to input correctly. Here are a few examples:

  • aco: a couple of
  • ft: for the
  • fy: for you
  • gm: Good morning
  • md: — (em dash)
  • ppl: people
  • qq: ’ (smart apostrophe)
  • ww: work

This is particularly useful when I’m working on something where a particular word or phrase will be used a lot. I set up two new shortcuts (tl: Teeline and sh: shorthand) when I began working on this blog post.

Coupled with Swiftkey’s excellent correction and predictive capabilities, these shortcuts mean I’m able to get my thoughts down quickly and accurately, whether I’m writing a blog post, talking notes, chatting to friends, or posting to social media. SwiftKey also works when I use my phone or tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard. This combination is close to ideal and enables me to capture what I want to write with the minimum of fuss, error, or inconvenience.

Teeline Shorthand

Given this lifelong interest in different writing modes and systems, it’s perhaps surprising I’ve not explored shorthand more fully until now. That’s partly because I’ve had methods such as Graffiti or SwiftKey to capture my ideas and thoughts electronically. This means I don’t have to type things up afterwards, and also means I can work on a letter or blog post on multiple devices. It’s also true that since university I’ve had little need to take notes at speed, which is shorthand’s main advantage and purpose.

So, why take it up now? My interest was sparked after chatting with a friend who uses shorthand in her work, and who had recently started teaching herself Braille. I thought it would be interesting to learn a new skill too, and began researching different shorthand systems. I rejected Pitman because I thought the light and heavy strokes it uses to differentiate letters (for example to differentiate P and B, and T and D) would be difficult to achieve with the fountain pens I like to use. I narrowed my choice to either Teeline or Gregg, settling on Teeline when I discovered that was the method my friend uses.

I treated myself to three books: Teeline Shorthand (Harry Butler), Teeline Gold: The Course Book, and the Teeline Gold: Word List. There’s also a wealth of material online. Teeline Shorthand offer training courses (fees apply) but share sample lessons and practice material for free on their website, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. The Let’s Love Teeline Together YouTube channel is also excellent.

Although I’m far from proficient, I find it interesting how shorthand has become part of my thinking. I haven’t done much graphics work in years but I remember reaching a point with Photoshop where I scarcely had to think about what I wanted to do or how to do it; the software became an extension of my creativity. I’m not there yet with Teeline but I can feel the transition beginning to take place. For example, I can be typing — as I am right now — or writing longhand in my diary, and I find I’m simultaneously forming the Teeline outlines in my head.

I like that Teeline isn’t overly strict and encourages you to adapt or devise new forms if they work better for you. For example, the standard Teeline forms for “good” and “get” are the same, resembling a number “2,” with the curved downward “g” in its standard position and a horizontal stroke representing either “t” (as in got or get) or “d” (as in good). I’ve taken to writing it in a raised “tee-line”position for “got” / “get” and on the baseline for “good.” The significance may be lost on you if you are unfamiliar with Teeline but it makes the words easier to distinguish for me when writing and reading back.

This highlights one of the main frustrations I have with Teeline, which is that certain words are written the same, their difference being given only by context. Other forms, especially for combinations of words, seem less than logical, though that’s partly because the system is still rather new to me. Thus far, I’m more proficient at writing Teeline than reading it, even reading back from my own notes.

I also find some Teeline forms clumsy or ugly, including certain words and names I use a lot. This isn’t an issue if you are only using it to take notes at speed, but it grates with me from an aesthetic perspective. I’ve considered switching to Gregg shorthand which to my eye looks better on the page, but I’ve invested too much time and effort now to change systems. I’m hoping that with time I come to appreciate Teeline’s occasional clunkiness. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Next Steps

I enjoy the challenge of learning Teeline, but I’ve yet to find a practical use for it. My friend suggested I use it to take notes during work meetings, or for my shopping lists. I’m not yet sufficiently proficient for the former, and I’m unsure what I might end up buying at the supermarket if I try the latter! I don’t want to use it for my personal diary but I may start a separate shorthand journal and see how I get along with that.

I’d like to explore if there are any ways to generate Teeline on a keyboard, or to type the Teeline outlines (eg “tln” for Teeline, or “abt” for about) and have these automatically expanded into the full words. That would be similar to the shortcuts I’ve set up in SwiftKey. I’m also interested to know if there’s an app which could scan written shorthand and convert it into full text, akin to optical character recognition (OCR) software for regular writing. I’ve not found anything like this yet for Teeline. If you know of anything, please let me know.

Over to You

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into my fascination with writing modes and techniques, from runes and Elven script to Graffiti to Teeline. If any of it resonates with you, drop me a line, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by the author at Costa Coffee, Kingston Park, Newcastle upon Tyne.


1 comment:

  1. I think your interest in these writing forms over the span of your life. Id especially like to see the one you developed on your own. Great blog!