AskDefine | Define stenotype

Extensive Definition

A stenotype or shorthand machine is a specialized chorded keyboard or typewriter used by stenographers for shorthand use. A trained court reporter or closed captioner must write speeds of approximately 225 words per minute at very high accuracy in order to pass the Registered Professional Reporter test Many users of this machine can even reach 300 words per minute and per the website of the California Official Court Reporters Association the official record for American English is 375 wpm.
The keyboard looks more like a compact piano than a regular alphanumeric keyboard. Multiple keys are pressed simultaneously (known as "chording") to spell out whole syllables, words, and phrases with a single hand motion. This system makes realtime transcription practical for court reporting and live closed captioning. Because the keyboard does not contain all the letters of the English alphabet, letter combinations are substituted for the missing letters. There are several "schools" of thought on how to record various sounds, known as "theories", e.g., the StenEd and Phoenix theories.
The first shorthand machine (not then called "stenotype") on a punched paper strip was built in 1830 by Karl Drais. An American shorthand machine was patented in 1879 by Miles M. Bartholomew. A French version was created by Marc Grandjean in 1909. The direct ancestor of today's stenotype was created by Ward Stone Ireland in about 1913 or so, and the word "stenotype" was applied to his machine and its descendants sometime thereafter.
Most modern stenotype keyboards have more in common with computers than they do with typewriters or QWERTY computer keyboards. Most contain microprocessors, and many allow sensitivity adjustments for each individual key. They translate stenotype to English internally using user-specific dictionaries, and most have LCD screens. They typically store a full day's work in non-volatile memory of some type, such as floppy diskette, hard drive, non-volatile RAM, or flash card. These factors influence the price, along with economies of scale, as there are only a few thousand stenotype keyboards sold each year. As of April 2008, student models such as a Stentura 400SRT sell for about US $1,500 and top-end models sell for approximately US$ 5,000. Machines that are 30-40 years old still resell for upwards of $350.

Keyboard layout

Stenotype keys normally are black with no markings. This is the keyboard layout of the American stenotype machine:
In "home position," the fingers of the left hand rest along the gap between the two main rows of keys to the left of the asterisk (little finger on the "S" to forefinger on the "H" and "R"). These fingers are used to generate initial consonants. The fingers of the right hand lie in the corresponding position to the right of the asterisk (forefinger on "FR" to little finger on "TS"), and are used for final consonants. The thumbs produce the vowels.
The system is roughly phonetic, e.g. the word "cat" would be written by a single stroke comprising the initial K, the vowel A, and the final T.
To enter a number, a user presses the number bar at the top of the keyboard at the same time as the other keys, much like the shift key on a QWERTY based keyboard. The illustration shows which lettered keys correspond to which digits. Numbers can be chorded just as letters can. They read from left to right across the keyboard. It's possible to write 137 in one stroke by pressing the number bar along with SP-P, but it takes three separate strokes to write 731. Many court reporters and stenocaptioners write out numbers phonetically instead of using the number bar.
There are various ways to combine letters to make different sounds; different court reporters use different theories in their work. Although most writing is similar, most stenographers cannot read another's work, as it is highly personalized.
Some court reporters use scopists to translate and edit their work. A scopist is a person who is trained in the phonetic language, English punctuation, and usually in legal formatting. They are especially helpful when a court reporter is working so much that they do not have time to edit their own work. Both scopists and proofreaders work closely with the court reporter to ensure an accurate transcript.

Steno Paper

Steno paper comes out of a stenotype machine at the rate of one row per chord, with the pressed letters printed out in 22 columns corresponding to the 22 keys, in the following order:


This is a basic chart of the letters of this machine. There are, however, different writing theories that represent some letters or sounds differently (e.g., the "*F" for "final V" in the chart below), and each court reporter develops personalized "briefs" and alternate ways of writing things.


The following example shows how steno paper coming out of the machine represents an English sentence. Notice that key combinations can have different meanings depending on context. In the first stroke of the word "example," the "PL" combination refers to the letter M. In the second stroke of the word, that same key combination refers to the letters P and L.
The initial Z is also commonly chorded by the entire initial bank, STKPWHR, in order to avoid thousands of potential conflicts.


Stenograph is by far the largest manufacturer of American stenotype keyboards with an estimated marketshare in excess of 90%. Their top models are the Stentura and the paperless élans. There were two other large manufacturers in the 1980s (Xscribe, with the StenoRAM line and BaronData, with the Transcriptor line). Stenograph purchased both companies and discontinued their products. The current manufacturers in the U.S. include:
stenotype in German: Maschinenstenografie
stenotype in Spanish: Estenotipia
stenotype in French: Sténotype
stenotype in Italian: Stenotipia
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