Stenographic Pencils, Continued

One of the most commonly employed search terms that lead readers to this blog concern stenographic pencils and their use. I’ve noticed that people who take the plunge into pencils almost always go through this stage: steno pencils are cool, unusual, rare but still available, just about (the Staedtler Stenofix is gone but Faber-Castell still makes the 9008). My own interest in them has waxed and waned, but all throughout, I had the niggling sense that I hadn’t really understood them: why certain specimens were hard and some soft (how were they supposed to be, hard or soft?), why they were offered in the limited but confusing range from HB to 2B, and whether round pencils really were better for the job. The answers were outlined to me early on, back when I first talked about stenos, but it wasn’t until recently that the penny really, finally dropped. 


In an Eberhard Faber catalog from 1923, I came across the classification: firm leads for Gregg users, softer leads for Pitman. So the answer to all my questions was in fact really simple: it depended on what system you used.  It’s just that it took me a long time to visualize the differences between the two systems and how they would translate into different needs without actually learning shorthand myself. 

The picture became much clearer after I understood that the Pitman system, popular in Europe, consists of geometric shapes and lines of thin or bold strokes. This means that symbols are made up of (to grossly generalize) circles and parts of circles and straight, angular lines. (The same shape can denote different sounds depending on the thickness of the stroke.) In contrast, its American rival, the Gregg, is based on the ellipse, which is the same shape that forms the basis of cursive penmanship, and employs the same curvilinear motion to propel it forward. As John Robert Gregg himself explains in Basic Principles of Gregg Shorthand:

The fundamental difference between geometric [i.e. Pitman] shorthand and Gregg shorthand is this: Geometric shorthand is based on the circle and its segments; Gregg is based on the ellipse, or oval.

As geometric shorthand is based on the circle, its characters are supposed to be drawn with geometric precision, and are struck in all directions. The characters, being struck in all directions, necessitate continual change in the position of the hand while writing. 

As Gregg Shorthand is based on the ellipse or oval, it is written with a uniform slope, as in longhand. Its characters are, therefore, familiar and natural to the hand, and like longhand do not require a change in the position of the hand while writing.

This being the almighty Oval.

For us, perhaps the most relevant fact that can be gleaned from this is that Pitman users have to re-learn how to hold a pen or pencil. Gregg says Isaac Pitman said in his Manual:

The student should be careful not to hold the pen as for common writing, for this position of the hand is adapted for the formation of letters constructed upon a totally different principle from those of Phonography. The pen should be held loosely in the hand, like a pencil for drawing, with the nib turned in such a manner that the letter “b” can be struck with ease. 

In other words, Pitman users “draw”(I would even say “sketch”) the characters. I once sat next to a former professional stenographer at a calligraphy workshop (she took notes in what I now realize was Pitman), and she told me that her teacher always made sure that the students held their pencils lightly enough so that the teacher could pull the pencils out from their grip at any time without resistance. 

While the grip is feather-light, pressure is applied from time to time to produce thicker strokes, so softer pencils are necessary. I wondered whether the soft tips might not dull quickly, but on second thought the stenographer would be “shading” only intermittently, so the tip probably won’t wear down as fast as a normal soft pencil would. (In any case the stenographer can’t press down too hard, since it will only slow her down.)

In contrast to Pitman, Gregg users “write.” The symbols are joined together more, there is no line variation, and I imagine a page of Gregg would look a lot more like normal longhand writing than a page of Pitman. It’s interesting, though, how much the system’s founder emphasizes its “easy” and “natural” qualities, on top of the practical advantages its practitioners enjoy using the same hand and finger positions and the same movements as those of longhand:

It has been said that it is impossible for the human hand to make a perfect circle in rapid writing. On the other hand, elliptic figures are natural and easy to the hand; indeed, the making of an ellipse or oval is one of the first exercises given a child in learning ordinary writing. 

This opens up another interesting line of thought. Would longhand still be considered “natural” today? Because although cursive writing has indeed evolved over the centuries in slanted and interconnected form, penmanship is a learned skill, and there has been enough disruption in the past few decades that not even Mr. Gregg would be comfortable declaring the fundamentals of cursive writing to be universally applicable now. I wonder, will the loss of penmanship influence the way pencils are made in any meaningful or noticeable way?

*Many of the steno pencils pictured above come from Gunther’s collection. Thank you, Gunther :)

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7 thoughts on “Stenographic Pencils, Continued

  1. 저는 사용자의 필기습관이 연필의 생산에 영향을 미친다는 관점에서 일본에서 부드럽고 무른 심을 선호하고 그런 특성을 가진 연필을 생산하는 이유가 일본의 글자(히라가나)에 있는 것이 아닌가 하는 생각을 한 적이 있어요. 직선획이 많은 한글과는 필기습관이 다르지 않을까 싶기도 하고요. 지금은 우리나라도 진한심을 선호해 거의 HB~2B 경도를 일반 필기용으로 생산하지만 90년대까지만해도 H(옅은심), HB, B(진한심)으로 구분되어 있고 H 경도를 일반적으로 사용했었거든요. 일본의 연필이 전체적으로 무르고 부드러운 필기감을 가진 반면에 우리나라의 가장 큰 연필 생산업체인 동아연필은 지금까지도 일관되게 특유의 사각거리는 필기감을 유지하고 있기도 하고요.

    그리고 로블 님의 이번 포스팅을 보고나서 들은 생각인데 (아직) 일본에서 보편적인 ‘세로쓰기’도 무르고 부드러운 연필을 선호하는데 영향을 주었을 것 같아요. :)

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    1. (첫 댓글 주신 거라 스팸으로 걸러져 있는 걸 건져왔습니다. 되풀이 포스팅 하게 만들어서 죄송해요^^;;)

      사실 저는 후반부의 논지는 연필보다는 만년필을 염두에 두고 쓴 것이었는데, 연필에 적용시켜 그렇게 풀어내시다니 대단히 흥미롭습니다. 저도 필기구는 해당 문자체계의 영향을 분명히 받는다고 생각하는 편이거든요. 한글은 (그리고 현대의 영문 정자체도) 획이 대단히 짧고 뚝뚝 끊어져요. 옛날 영문 필기체는 가벼운 운필감에 때때로 특정 방향으로만 강한 힘이 들어가구요. 일본어에 대해서는 그리 깊이 생각해 본 적이 없었는데 분명 한글보다는 더 길고 좀 더 다양한 방향으로 긋는 곡선 획이 많은 것 같네요.

      일본 연필이 옛날부터 쭉 진했나요? 서양의 빈티지 연필들은 현대의 버전보다 연하고 단단한 경우가 많던데 (제도용이라 그랬을까요), 연필의 진하기에 관한 한 문자체계도 그렇지만 여러 가지 요소가 엮여 있을 것 같아요. 생각할 거리를 던져 주셔서 감사합니다^^

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Stephen, I’d be flattered if you found it worth reading! And no, I haven’t noticed any such markings either. Do let us know if you find any :)

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