[Day 169] The magic of phonetic writing

In my anthropology class, there is this lady who comes to every lecture with a peculiar-looking keyboard and transcribes everything everyone says in the room. The average rate for English speakers in the US is 150 wpm, so I estimate her writing speed is well above 150 wpm because she gets everything everyone says right, even manages to insert things like *bell chiming* or *indiscernible sound in the background*. This is really impressive, given that professional typists only have the speed of 75-85 wpm.

So, after the lecture today, I decided to come and introduce myself to her. When I told Sarah, the lady’s name, about my fascination with her typing, she was very excited. She told me she loved talking about that because she thinks it’s magical too. Here is a picture of the setup that she uses:


She corrected me that what people don’t call what she does “typing.” They call it “writing,” because she isn’t trying to “type” the way we type letters on our normal laptop keyboards. Rather, she writes the sounds that she hears. For example, when she hears “romanticization”, she doesn’t type every letter in the word “romanticization,” but she writes the sound “ro-” with one stroke and “-manticization” with another stroke, using 3 fingers at a time. Or when she hears my name as “Huyen,” she doesn’t type H-u-y-e-n, but she writes two sounds “hu-in.” The keyboard that she uses is called a steno writer. Its speed comes mainly from 2 things:

  1. Sound is shorter than letters. You need 4 normal keystrokes to type “tion,” but only 1 keystroke to write the sound “tion” makes, or 3 keystrokes to type “are,” but only 1 keystroke to type “r” which is the sound “are” makes.
  2. When typing on a normal computer keyboard, most people type sequentially: one letter at a time. But on this writer, you learn to key in multiple strokes at once, much like playing the piano. I asked Sarah if she plays piano, she said she does, and she said that musical people have a much better time learning to use this writer.
Sarah demonstrates how she writes different sounds
The layout of a steno writer

Me: Wait, the writer has far fewer keys than a normal keyboard. There are only 22 of them!

Sarah: Yes, because many letters, such as”c”, “k”, “q” often make the same sound.

M: How long did it take you to learn to use the writer?

S: It doesn’t take long to use it but it takes a long time to build up the speed. There is a dictionary that you have to learn to know what word is mapped to what sounds.

M: What do you do when you encounter unknown words?

S: Before every lecture, I ask the professor for the slide he’ll be using so I can define new words in the dictionary. If I encounter some absolutely new words, like foreign names, I’ll have to just write whatever sounds I hear and maybe ask for clarification later.

M: Do you think the layout of the keyboard makes sense? Is there anything you’d rather change?

S: Actually, I think the designer did a great job. Every time I use the writer I’m amazed at how logical it is. There is nothing I’d rather change.

M: What’s your writing speed?

S: Over 200 WPM for sure.

(I later looked it up on Wikipedia and found that some stenographers can reach 300 words per minute. The Web site of the California Official Court Reporters Association gives the official record for American English as 375 wpm.)

M: Is it the same writer they use in courtrooms?

S: Oh yes this is the one. I’m also a courtroom reporter.

M: Which setting would you prefer: classroom or courtroom?

S: Classroom for sure. In an academic setting, I’m always learning something new. Courtrooms can be very violent and very sad. Of course, my job is to write exactly what people say, but you know how you hear somebody pleads and can tell if that person is obviously lying or thinks about how people can do terrible things. I cried in the courtroom the other day during a domestic abuse case. This man halfway into pleading suddenly burst into tears: “That’s how I learned to be violent. I learned it from my dad.” It was so sad everybody in the courtroom started crying too.

Sarah also taught me a lot about phonetics and how she perceives sounds–it was fascinating. The conversation made me decide to take a phonetics class next quarter.

If you’re interested in stenotype, Wikipedia has a pretty good article about it.

[Day 169] The magic of phonetic writing

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