How Does Stenography Work?
Or for those who can read steno: HOU DUZ STEPB/OG/FIE WORBG
Stenography is a form of shorthand typing done on a special machine which makes it possible to produce simultaneously a verbatim transcript, for instance in courts. Stenographers also work alongside respeakers to produce live subtitles for TV.
Why is stenography so good?
A trained QWERTY typist might type at 80 words per minute, but Fiona Bruce talks at roughly 180 words per minute and Robert Peston even more! A stenographer writes at 200 words per minute minimum and so is able to produce an exact transcript simultaneously. To get an idea, you can watch this great video of a stenographer in action.
How do they do it?
To reach these dizzying speeds, stenographers write syllable by syllable, rather than letter by letter on a special stenography machine.
It has two rows of four keys on the left-hand side, all consonants, which are pressed by the four fingers of the left hand. There are two rows of five keys - again all consonants - on the right-hand side which are pressed by the four fingers of the right-hand. In the middle, just below these keys, are four more keys which are pressed by the two thumbs. These are vowels.
The left hand hits the first consonant of the syllable, while the thumbs hit the vowel and the right hand hits the final consonant, like playing chords on a piano.
But there are 21 consonants!
You’re right. In order to produce all 21 consonants, combinations of keys are used. For instance, there is no letter N at all. On the left-hand side of the machine you have to press the T, the P and the H together to represent an N. Why those combinations of letters? That’s just the way it is!
And what about the 5 vowels?
In stenography, we talk about the vowel sounds that make up the English language, not just the five written vowel letters. Different combinations of the four vowel keys are pressed to represent the different vowel sounds. So the E key represents the sound in ‘set’ - SET in steno. And pressing A, O and E all together represents the sound in ‘seat’ - SAOET in steno.
I bet there’s no room for punctuation keys on that tiny machine!
Right again. Further combinations of the letters are pressed to create a code which represents a piece of punctuation. Many stenos use FPLT to represent a full stop.
There’s also no spacebar because the paper feeding mechanism turns as the keys are pressed, so the syllables read vertically down the special long, thin paper. Of course for live subtitling, the machine is hooked up to a computer instead, which converts the steno speak into legible English.
That does sound cool!
It can take between two and five years of full-time training to steno at 200 words per minute, but it’s worth it! Stenography is as accurate and reliable as the stenographer.
Do you have any questions about stenography? Let me know in the comments below.
Rachel Thorn, Subtitler
This post is part of our on-going blog series about access services