Shorthand: My Mom and My Grandson

Both my mom and my grandson have learned to write in shorthand. And though the symbols are different, both of their writing methods abbreviate language—compressing phrases and sentences into miniature packages of meaning.

The other day, I watched my grandson as he texted. Before this, I hadn’t known that AFAYK was short for as far as you know or that you could write B4N when you meant bye for now. I have long appreciated the use of the thumb for turning a doorknob and tying a shoe. But my grandson’s agile thumbs on the cell phone pad mesmerized me.

“It’s easier than typing everything out,” he told me. “And it still gets the point across.”

Decades ago, my mom said something similar one evening. Working through an adult-education program to earn her high school diploma, it was her practice to join us kids at the kitchen table for after-dinner homework. This particular evening, she was practicing shorthand for her speedwriting class.

I watched over her shoulder as her pen flew across the page, condensing into seconds what would take minutes to write using the methods my teachers expected. I went back to writing my English report, but I kept glancing at my mom across the table, training her mind and her hand to get it down fast. I was envious. I had often wished for a way to write as fast as I could think. And I became curious about the letters and words and sentences coming from the tip of my pencil. How had all these symbols developed?

Being in education, I’ve heard the alarms about texting—that it wrecks havoc with grammar and punctuation and literacy and is leading to a downfall of the English language. But I’ve been in education long enough to remember the fear that keyboards would ruin penmanship and that word processers would bring an end to good spelling.

It’s always been hard to change. Schools found the transition from individual slates to chalkboards on walls difficult. And when paper became available for common use, educators feared that its easy access would decrease memory.

In 1911, teachers shuddered when Thomas Edison said, “Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture.”

But language is fluid, and in the end, schools have always adapted to new ways of communicating. Dangers and all. Words, in whatever form they come, carry power, and texting, like any language, can be misused. But teachers are learning the texting jargon and using it to communicate with students. And I’ve found that students are more willing to take a look at Shakespeare when their own lingo is appreciated, when they see themselves in the long line of people who have used and changed language.

Finding a short way to get the point across—this is what my mom was after when she learned speedwriting. It’s now my grandson’s aim when he texts. And this is the essence of language.

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