Unknown language #14

« previous post | next post »

Here is the first page of a letter sent from China (Tongzhou, Beijing) to the US (Trenton, NJ) by a missionary in 1888. The missionary’s name is James Ingram (1858-1934).  My colleagues in China are very interested in what the letter says, but they cannot read the script.

(credit:  Yale Divinity Library)

My colleagues in China think that it might be Hebrew, but as soon as I looked at the writing, it seemed like Pitman shorthand:

Pitman shorthand is a system of shorthand for the English language developed by Englishman Sir Isaac Pitman (1813–1897), who first presented it in 1837. Like most systems of shorthand, it is a phonetic system; the symbols do not represent letters, but rather sounds, and words are, for the most part, written as they are spoken.

Shorthand was referred to as phonography in the 19th century. It was first used by newspapers who sent phonographers to cover important speeches, usually stating (as a claim of accuracy) that they had done so. The practice got national attention in 1858 during the Lincoln–Douglas Debates which were recorded phonographically. The shorthand was converted into words during the trip back to Chicago, where typesetters and telegraphers awaited them.


I cannot read Pitman shorthand, but if any Language Log readers are able to do so, or if I am mistaken and this is some other kind of writing, my Chinese colleagues and I would be very grateful for any help you can offer by way of decipherment and translation.

Because he wrote with such a flowing, graceful hand, I was curious to learn more about James Ingram, and was greatly rewarded when I came upon this account of the man:

Dr. Ingram was an extraordinary man! He dedicated his life to helping others. After his education in local schools in Vineland, New Jersey. He continued his education, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Dept. His first practice was in Vineland between 1883 and 1887, when he then became a medical missionary for the American Board of Foreign Missions. He and his first wife, Sally Voss, sailed to North China to join the medical compound in Tungchou, near Peking. He taught himself the Chinese language and translated “Hare’s Therapeutics “ and other medical books into Chinese so that the two medical schools he helped establish would have books for the students. He had to create new words for many medical terms that did not exist in the Chinese language, such as suture, and antiseptic. He also co-wrote a second book, “Analysis of the Chinese Characters” to help others learn the language. Life was not easy; he buried three of his children, and his first wife, he was in major and minor wars, but he rose above all his trials serving vast areas as surgeon, general practitioner, educator and even architect! He helped in the design of the Peking Union Medical College. His patients were from all levels of income. He fought epidemics of Bubonic Plaque, helped fight famines, invented a “de-louser”, brought in healthy cow stock to provide clean milk (which was scar[c]e in China), he also taught how to grind glass properly to correct vision by making eyeglasses. He was called into Mongolia many times to treat the sick there as well. During the World War I, he was asked by the Red Cross to travel to Ekaterinburg, Siberia to help 1,000 Czech soldiers return home. They sailed from Vladivostok crossing the U.S. (where they were invited to the White House to meet Pres. Wilson) then France, Austria and into Bohemia. Dr. Ingram was away for 18 months to complete that task and return to China. With his second wife, Myrtle Bell Prough, they had 5 more children who were all born in China.


What a remarkable man James Henry Ingram was!  What an enormous amount of achievements he had to his credit!  Not only that, he mastered shorthand, taught himself Chinese, helped to found two medical schools, and did so many other useful things, including inventing a "de-louser", serving as an architect, went to Mongolia many times, even travelled to Siberia — all in service to humanity — in an age when travel (especially in such remote areas) — was difficult and dangerous.

Dr. Ingram was born in my home state of Ohio, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Dept., and devoted his life in service to China.  In particular, he was proficient in Chinese and was responsible for the invention of Chinese terms for the advancement of medicine.  And I loved that tiny drawing of a person with a carrying / shoulder pole (biǎndan 扁擔) in his letter.

Fangyi Cheng, professor of Boya College at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China is writing a book about James Ingram.  Any material or insights about Ingram that you can share will be much appreciated.


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 12:23 pm

    It sure looks like Pitman shorthand to me. Here's a shorthand dictionary from the time if anyone wants to try to decipher it.


  2. Paul Garrett said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 2:42 pm

    Yes, it looks like shorthand, though by this year I cannot remember the distinguishing characteristics of "Pitman" versus "Gregg" shorthand systems. Somehow I have a dim recollection that Pitman used line thickness, which this sample seems not to do…

  3. cameron said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

    given that the letter is dated 1888, it's a bit early to be Gregg Shorthand, the first version of which was published in that same year

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 3:55 pm

    I too immediately thought that it might be Pitman shorthand, but sadly the person who taught me what little I know of that script has been dead for some 20 years.

  5. Araucaria said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    Well, there you have it. He was a medic. As the progeny of two medics, both with indecipherable, yet elegant, scrawl, I wouldn't rule out this being written in standard English. And if it isn't, you may never be able to recognise it anyway, even if you hit on the right answer.

  6. Brian J .Duckworth said,

    October 27, 2022 @ 10:09 pm

    There are a number of tutorials on YouTube teaching the Pitman shorthand method.

  7. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 1:19 am

    still available in a Dover reprint:
    Analysis of Chinese Characters (Dover Language Guides) Paperback – November 2, 2011
    by G. D. Wilder (Author), J. H. Ingram (Author)

  8. MattF said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 6:39 am

    Judging from samples on line, Pitman shorthand has a fair amount of loopiness, which doesn’t appear to be true of the script in the lletter. Since it’s a letter, one would expect the recipient to understand it, which provides a significant constraint.

  9. Francois Lang said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 7:13 am

    Ben's shorthand dictionary has ~150 entries per page and over 250 pages (plus more than 20 pages of proper names) — about 40K entries. How could that have been useful? Or maybe practitioners learned 1% of the entries, ignoring words like "transmutationist" ?

  10. Ralph J Hickok said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 7:26 am

    @Francois Lang:
    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language contains more than 350K entries, yet it's quite useful.

    One doesn't memorize a dictionary. Its chief use is for looking up the meaning of a word you don't know.

  11. Arnold Baldwin said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    This looks very similar to the “thicks” and “thins” in the notebook of my “trusty amanuensis” from days gone by.

    Perhaps there are still stenographers and teachers of shorthand in the area who would be delighted to be part of history in decoding the Ingram letter. FWIW, Pittman’s brother Benjamin promoted the script in Cincinnati in the mid-1860s.

    And here’s a bonus: Pittman script is phonetic and, in the decoding process, we might get to hear James Ingram’s voice, plus any Chinese pieces he may have included in his letter.

    A similar exercise in “historical decoding” of Pitman is described here: https://www.arthurlinfoot.org.uk/about/pitmans-shorthand/ although the younger Linfoot did have to learn the script for himself.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 8:36 am

    From Linda Greene, our department administrator:

    The problem with shorthand is that, after learning it and using it for awhile, each user develops their own “shortcuts” that only they can read.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 8:56 am

    From a colleague:

    Your post brought tears to my eyes because my father (who died ten years ago) used shorthand all the time when writing messages to himself. His shorthand had more variation in the ups and downs.

    My dad studied shorthand for a long time, both in high school and in college (yes, business college that he attended at night after work and paid for it himself–until his senior year when his father surprised him and paid the tuition bill).

  14. Tim Leonard said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 9:23 am

    My grandparents were also medical missionaries in China during part of that period. My mother was there with them as a child, and later was trained in shorthand. I have sent her the image of the letter, and will reply again if she is able to read it, though at age 101, her eyesight is no longer what it once was and she may not be able to make it out.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 9:55 am

    From Diane Moderski, a staff member of our department:

    It’s shorthand and most likely Pitman, I’m a Greg girl and I think Peggy is too. I still have my book from Katherine Gibbs, lol.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 10:27 am

    I have given a copy to a friend whose wife taught Pitmans, and he will ask her to take a look at it.

  17. Tim Leonard said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 1:55 pm

    My mother says she doesn't recognize it as Gregg, so it's probably Pitman, which she doesn't know.

  18. Rube said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 1:55 pm

    Showed it to a friend who was a legal secretary back in the day. She agrees it's Pitman, but she can only read Forkner.

  19. David Nash said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 7:09 pm

    Last year http://shorthandtranscription.co.uk was helpful in decoding for me some 1952 fieldnotes of a linguist who in places glossed in Pitman's.

  20. liuyao said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 3:23 am

    Can’t help with shorthand, but it’s not hard to track down a 1926 photo of Dr Ingram with Arthur Hummel, a young Fung Yu-lan, and others. https://edan.si.edu/slideshow/viewer/?damspath=/Public_Sets/FS/FSA/FSA_A1995.10/FSA_A1995.10_5.2.17

    FWIW, one of the daughters of Dr Ingram appears in this photo of Tagore when he was visiting China. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ken_mayer/10674876256/in/album-72157671094765395/

  21. Not a naive speaker said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 6:27 am

    Maybe Transkribus might help. Not short-term but long-term, if somebody will train the engine.

    Kurrent lesen mit Transkribus

    A quote from the above page (Victor, you might enjoy this):

    „Und derzeit führen wir gerade Experimente für Chinesisch durch, für altes Chinesisch“

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 10:01 am

    @Not a naive speaker:

    Even though the picture at the top of the page is quite wintry, your note about Chinese transcription indeed warms my heart, especially since my father was born near Innsbruck.

  23. Scott P. said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 10:42 am

    @not a naive speaker: The issue with Transkribus is you need around 500 pages of training material, which all needs to be by the same hand. And those 500 pages need to be already transcribed. Here, we have a page, so it can do very little. And if we were able to transcribe 500 pages, we wouldn't need Transkribus to interpret this page.

  24. DMcCunney said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 4:33 pm

    I was aware of Pitman shorthand, but never actually saw it. It seemed to be in competition at one point with Gregg shorthand, which one.

    I'm not sure of current practice, but Gregg shorthand was used bu court reporters, whose job was to record all statement made in court, and used Gregg to do the recordings. The Gregg shorthand could then be converted back to normal writing if it was necessary to check what had actually been said
    An old friend in the late 60s was a court reporter. Another chap I knew back then was an engineer, and took Gregg shorthand.

    .My SO, who also reads L, saw that and said "That's Pitman shortand!"

    She h=]ad been taught it by her mother, who considered Pitman easier to learn and more logical, One interesting difference between Pitman and Gregg was that you could use Pitman to transcribe made up mwords that had no prior existence, Gregg could only transcribe known word.s/

  25. Philip Anderson said,

    October 30, 2022 @ 3:59 am

    @D McCunney
    Gregg became more popular than Pitman in the US, but I don’t think it has been used much if at all in the UK (I had not heard of it). Pitman dominated here, but Teeline is used by reporters now.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    October 30, 2022 @ 4:15 am

    Now also passed on to a second friend who has a friend who still teaches Pitman's — she hopes to be able to offer feedback by the end of the month.

  27. Julian said,

    October 30, 2022 @ 4:23 pm

    It's actually a very neat hand. If it's intended to be read by someone else, that might explain why.

  28. Julian said,

    October 30, 2022 @ 4:34 pm

    Pitman was born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. You can guess some things about his variety of English from his system. No cot/caught merger. No signs for the vowels of bared/bird/beard, which are distinct from all other vowels in my non-rhotic variety.
    Fun fact: his brother Jacob went to Australia and promoted Pitman's shorthand there. He epitaph in Rookwood cemetery near Sydney is written in Pitman's reformed spelling system.

  29. Beryl Pratt said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 3:07 am

    Unknown language #14
    This is Lindsley's Tachygraphy, see Reddit Shorthand post: https://www.reddit.com/r/shorthand/comments/yf4vgd/1888_letter_in_shorthand/

  30. Arnold Baldwin said,

    October 31, 2022 @ 7:49 pm

    Brilliant sleuthing by Beryl Pratt for identifying Lindsley’s Tachygraphy as the key to unlocking James Ingram’s letter — and for her transcription to date.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 3:54 am


    This section is from the book "The Compendium Of Tachygraphy: Or Lindsley's Phonetic Shorthand", by D. P. Lindsley. Also available from Amazon: Lindsley's Phonetic Shorthand.


    The new System of Phonetic Short-hand, which we have partially developed in the following pages, is the result of a protracted effort to conform the system of Mr. Isaac Pitman to the beauty of its theory. A few persons of peculiar genius have mastered that system, and found its use of great service in all their literary pursuits. But while a few were able to relieve themselves of the intolerable drudgery of writing by its means, hundreds – we can say, in truth, thousands – were striving in vain to make the old system practically useful to them. We speak what we know. Nineteen twentieths of all the phonographers we have ever seen are of this number; and we are almost constantly in receipt of letters from all parts of the country which testify with emphasis to the impracticability of phonography, and express an earnest hope that some system may be found that can be applied to the common uses of writing. Besides, as a teacher of phonography for several years, we might give the result of our success, if more testimony were needed; but it is not necessary. When we awoke to the fact that we were attempting a hopeless task in trying to shove a system into favor burdened with the irregularities and complexities that characterize that system, we were surprised to find that most thinking men had arrived at the same conclusion long before us. And, when stimulated by a view of the necessity of some relief from the toil of writing, we conceived it still possible to work out the phonographic theory in a practical shape, we were more than pleased to learn that such men as the late Hon. Horace Mann had anticipated us here also, and indicated, with the usual clearness of his perceptions, the plain and practical plan on which success was certain. And others have from time to time urged the importance of a more rapid system of writing, not for the use of the verbatim reporter, but fur all the ordinary purposes of writing.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 4:08 am

    Pitman shorthand originally published 1837

    Lindsley's Tachygraphy originally published 1864

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    November 1, 2022 @ 6:08 am

    If the letter is written using Lindsley's Tachygraphy (and I have no reason to suggest or believe otherwise), then The Alphabet Of Tachygraphy, found here, may be of some use in deciphering it.

  34. Jenny Cox said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 5:17 am

    Yes Pitmans – i used it 1960's in legal offices and still do sometimes.

RSS feed for comments on this post