Polish Gregg – summary

I think it’s time to sum up my impressions of the Polish version of Gregg Shorthand, as I promised to Chuck couple months ago. I had spent several months carefully learning the rules of the system, preparing for them my right hand (I’m left-handed). However, if the graphic material of the system seems pretty good, the more I could criticize the rules.

The tendency to omit the non-essential sounds as the standard solution – after many months of research I now know that’s a normal solution in the English systems, but Polish is much more complicated. On one hand, I received a complete set of words steno-graphically abbreviated, on the other hand, many of them would never be used in writing, as in the manual were used only as examples, not commonly used words. Shortening of words is not based on a strict scheme of rules that you can use on another word, but rather on the graphic material of the Gregg’s alphabet. The system in Polish is just a simple translation with so few adaptations, as possible. Thus, some confusion in the method, which, although effective as writing, seems inadequate to the language.

I would like to put here a small digression: on the basis of my research and reading I believe that the English (and not only English, I suppose) stenography is not directly based on the English language, but also a strong sentimental attachment associated with nineteenth (and before) century inventors of the shorthand systems to the Bible and the consequent interest in Jewish culture (how many of early English shorthand systems were pastors or theologists?). Rules of English shorthand systems are very similar to the Hebrew writings, especially when it comes to skipping vowels. But there is another feature: indicated above patterns of words – the Hebrew alphabet (similar to the Phoenician and early Greek) can not write in full all of the Hebrew words, hence the need for schemes of reading. Jewish rabbis have used this method for thousands of years, and to European science it came through the study of the Bible.

This can be considered a one of the methods of writing, not just writing shorthand. It is used also in many derivative alphabets, like Mongolian, Uighur, Manchu etc. Another method was used by a Roman scribes: shortening by special characters, signs (sigilla). They had created enormous number of characters and thus developed cursive writing. Gabelsberger mainly based on their experiences created the first (working) cursive shorthand system.

But back to Gregg. The system uses phonetic approach. In the case of the English language it is the wisest of the possible solutions. Quantitative advantage, which comes from the departure from the archaic spelling may be up to 40%. In Polish there is not so well. Departure from the traditional spelling (as it comes out from our own calculations) can not give more than 6% of benefit. So the basic of Gregg system (in addition to writing material) gives us nearly nothing! Perhaps 400 years of research on the Polish language, would bring good way of shortening words, what is available for English, but still nobody is interested in that matter.

In the nineteenth century, one of the Polish stenographic inventors made a calculation of the statistical distribution of words by the number of syllables. He performed the same calculation also for the German language (as his region was then under German occupation), which in this detail (you need to know) is much more similar to Polish than English. The statement goes that in the Polish language is much less monosyllable words, as well as those consisting of two syllables. Words consisting of three syllables is a little more in the German language. But there is much more Polish words consisting of four syllables, than the German words. This advantage disappears again within six-seven syllables.

The conclusion is that, there is in the Polish language a lot of words consisting of four syllables and more. In English, (you do not even need special statistical calculations), it is apparent that the most frequently used words are composed mostly of 1 or 2 syllables, sometimes of 3 syllables. Words consisting of four or more syllables are rare and usually relate to complex and specialized subjects. This takes us into a completely different challenges in the design of characters for a shorthand system.

Gregg’s system with its lovely curves and ellipses is ideally suited to the English language. In the manual for the Polish version the author presented examples mainly from the words no longer than 3 syllables (well, I had found a few 4-syllables examples, usually shorthanded by sign) – and the longest words were not so easy and swift to write. The main characters in the system, from the perspective of a graphic, A and E. These two vowels in the English language and Polish language are often (they sound differently though), but play different roles. Thus, in English can afford to write E and EE the same sign, but in Polish it is impossible, because our vowel I (English EE) does not come from the E. Its main role is to soften the previous sounds.

This leads us to an important difference between the approach of Gregg and Polish approach to Polish phonetics. In the Gregg’s system, there are number of special characters for diphones, triphones and other phenomena among the vowels. In Polish, however, the groups of consonants are the most difficult, triphones and diphones occur less frequently and are less valid.

In the same sense, any appearance of vowel I (E, EE) are regarded as the English diphthongs in the Polish version of Gregg. Thus, the author of the book made a long list of Polish diphones:





and even quatrophones


and so on.

Many of them are very rare, negligibly rare. Others came from misunderstanding softening of consonants by “I” (EE) vowel, as it should be understood phonetically. The usage of the letter “I” to softening treatment is applied under the Latin alphabet for Polish orthography, in which (the Latin) was not originally hard and soft consonants. I do not want to say that Jozef Widzowski (the translator of the system) did not understand that. He just applied English phonetics to the Polish language. In modern times, when English became the lingua franca of the world, we must remember that this does not apply to the English phonetics, especially phonetics of consonants, which compared with the phonetics of Slavic languages is quite primitive (which is, in fact, the advantage, not disadvantage) same as the phonetics of Latin, Spanish, or French. Let’s add to that the complex syntax, word formation, and impossible to comprehend, even for Polish linguists etymology and we’ll get probably the most difficult language in the world – voila, the Polish… You can easily check it on this page: http://grzegorj.private.pl/gram/gram00.html

Here should be emphasized the importance of a consonants in the Polish language. Consonants come together in groups called by stenographers consonant groups (for example):

S->SZ(SH)->Ś(SH’), C->CZ (CH)->Ć(CH’)







and even


and so on, so on, so on… I found more than 40 consonant groups that are often used. So, they actually should be considered as independent consonants, then Polish would look more similar to English.

Let’s compare:

“Unexpectedly, the march of innumerable enemy troops begun. From the philosophical point of view it would be impossible for the non-existence of an un-parallel universe.”

24 words, 165 letters, 49 syllables

Number of syllables for individual words:

5, 1, 1, 1, 4, 3, 1, 2. 1, 1, 5, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1, 4, 1, 1, 4, 3.

Words certainly shorthanded (in any shorthand system):

the, of, from, it, be, for, a = 7, number of appearances = 11


“Nieoczekiwanie rozpoczął się przemarsz nieprzeliczonych oddziałów przeciwnika. Z filozoficznego punktu widzenia niemożliwością byłoby niezaistnienie wszechświata nierównoległego.”

16 words, 177 letters, 57 syllables

Number of syllables for individual words:

6, 3, 1, 2, 5, 3, 3. 6, 2, 3, 5, 3, 4, 3, 6.

Words certainly shorthanded (in any shorthand system):

się, z, byłoby = 3, number of appearances = 3

I think this should explain the superiority of English from the perspective of shorthand. But for the same reason, other methods should be used to build a system of shorthand for the Polish language than for the English language. It is not very good information for me, as the Gregg’s system looks so pretty…

From this place I want to thank Chuck for allowing me to examine the Polish version of Gregg’s Light Line Shorthand for the Million. I would also like to thank the creators of the translate.google.com to help my brain not to boil during the writing of this lengthy essay. 😉

(by Krzysztof for group greggshorthand)

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5 comments Add yours
  1. Did the translator keep the same sounds for the symbols? One of Gregg's strengths is that common blends and syllables, such as BR, TM, NT and DD blend to make one smooth shape.

    It looks like those blends aren't common in Polish.

    Did he redefine the shapes so the common Polish blends got the nice shapes, or did those shapes stay with the common English blends?

  2. This is a very interesting essay. I have read somewhere that to develop and adapt an existing shorthand method to a language, the first and foremost rule is not to force or adapt the language into the shorthand, but to use the symbols in a manner that makes sense for the particular language. So for example, a symbol for a blend that is common in English could be used for something else in Polish. Is the deficiency here Gregg or this particular adaptation? I'm wondering about this.

    Coming with symbols for 40 consonant groups seems like a daunting task for any shorthand system!

    Thanks Krzysztof for your post and your contribution to the group! This is most excellent.

  3. Cricket: I think this translation (as I still did not dug out the story) was made from the inspiration of Mr. Gregg, which at the end of life had a kind of idee fixe, that his marvelous system might be adapted to any language in the world and finally become a sort of meta-shorthand, like nowadays the Latin alphabet on the most of the world. So, adaptations were made as few, as possible. Common English blends were kept with just minor change: TN=TEN DN=DEN, but the rest, I see, they are the same. This is not very efficient for Polish. Chuck could publish the images of pages XIII-XV, I cant, as I don't know, how. So, I can only put here links to the copy of main table of the alphabet, to let you search for differences:


    Mcbud: You're right. It's quite difficult to create and also not so easy to learn such a system. But remember, that we are used to speak such a difficult language, we also write in it. 😉

    With my colleague I work on new approach to handwritten shorthand system in Polish, as a first step. On the second step we are going to create a shorthand system for keyboard writing and on the third – if we can – for accord writing, which would be perhaps the first approach to this task in Polish. So now we have some view on the level of difficulty of our own language 😉

    Polish language looks like a flexible skeleton, on which are hung forms and structures of all languages that has ever surrounded and permeated our nation. Really Polish is grammar, inflection, word formation – but it's really hard to find a word that can be considered genuinely Polish. They are, but they also could be Czech, Russian, German… – too long common history. Similar to English, we have strong influences from Latin, but also from French and German. For last ca.100 years influences of English go stronger, as modern technology comes from native English countries.
    Contrary to the French for example, where the French word should be invented for a new concept (like ordinateur for computer) in Polish we take the word of the language in which the concept was born – and just fit it to Polish grammar. Hence it's not so easy to find any regularity in the phonetics of the Polish language and it is easier simply to create characters for any of consonant groups.

    Very inspiring is Pitman's and Teeline's approach – there are made characters for functional consonant groups or syllables (like -ability, -ment etc.). As if somebody can learn for the beginning a 100 of basic signs, also can easily learn next 100 – which is minimum number of such a functional clusters in Polish.

  4. I found something in addition to my essay:

    Using the Brown Corpus of 5,000 most-commonly-occurring words, and after
    eliminating abbreviations, non-words, and proper names that are no longer
    common/relevant, we have a list of 4,822 high-frequency words:
    1-syllable words 1,517 ( 1,517 syllables)
    2-syllable words 1,852 ( 3,704 syllables)
    3-syllable words 967 ( 2,901 syllables)
    4-syllable words 365 ( 1,460 syllables)
    5-syllable words 109 ( 545 syllables)
    6-syllable words 12 ( 72 syllables)
    Total 4,822 words (10,199 syllables) [2.12 syllabic density]

    Here we can easily see, that difference between English and other languages is significant.

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