The Mnemonic Major System and Gregg Shorthand Have the Same Underlying Structure!

I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old. The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.

The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons - perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered. This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.

The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:

Numeral IPA Associated Consonants Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
0 /s/ /z/ s, z, soft c "z" is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
1 /t/ /d/ t, d t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include "th")
2 /n/ n n has two downstrokes
3 /m/ m m has three downstrokes; m looks like a "3" on its side
4 /r/ r last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
5 /l/ l L is the Roman Numeral for 50
6 /ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/ j, sh, soft g, soft "ch" a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
7 /k/ /ɡ/ k, hard c, hard g, hard "ch", q, qu capital K "contains" two sevens (some variant systems include "ng")
8 /f/ /v/ f, v script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
9 /p/ /b/ p, b p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Unassigned Vowel sounds, w,h,y w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word's number value

There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings. When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration (Markus-Campbell Co., 1965), I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method. Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!

My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled “How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand.” In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen - one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method (Gregg Publishing Company, 1947).

I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:

Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand
Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand

Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!

Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!

The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.

The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump - heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.

Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.

From Dr. Bruno Furst’s “You Can Remember!” The mnemonic for remembering 6, 7, 8, & 9 in the major system
From Dr. Bruno Furst’s “You Can Remember!”
The mnemonic for remembering 6, 7, 8, & 9 in the major system.

From Louis Leslie’s “Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method” The mnemonic for remembering the strokes for k and g.
From Louis Leslie’s “Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method”
The mnemonic for remembering the strokes for k and g.

One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.

I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588), John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602), Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618), or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626)? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.

Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.

UPDATE on 7/6/14:

I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.

A chart indicating the correspondences between the major system and Gregg Shorthand.
A chart indicating the correspondences between
the major system and Gregg Shorthand.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on

Interesting post. I noticed the same, having read the same course of Dr. Bruno Furst and also having learned shorthand many years ago. I’ve been researching it for a long time. What is clear is that all of it is based upon sound, as in mouth-shape.
The NG has a different use of the letter G. You do not say Guh at the end of the word Song, which is, in effect, a different ‘mouth shape’. Okay, it’s not the mouth if it’s nasal.
Looking back at ancient Phoenician, it seems that their alphabet has the letter A. It also seems that they didn’t use this letter as the vowels we use it for today, as they used all the non-vowel sounds, of the mouth shapes. Most of what they did came from Egyptian writing. Egyptian writing came in tow forms; long hand and short hand.
Phoenician letters also rotated, as they were written, but essentially, the writing hasn’t changed since then. A small change did happen when the Phoenicians (Supposedly OPrince Cadmus looking for his sister Europa), went to Greece. They taught the Greeks the vowel sounds, then the Greeks wrote down the vowel sounds as characters and it is said that the Grandfather of Memory, Simonides wrote the last four of these.
However, the Phoenicians must have been clearly aware that these characters and mouth shapes did not change from continent to continent, so they created an alphabet to account for this, in order to trade. It took them many years. It was generations, not just one guy ‘inventing’ and alphabet. It was a community thing.
What the Phoenicians clearly and intentionally left out, was the vowel sounds. These vary from country to country and even within a county, something it was inevitable for the Phoenicians to notice. They went to Greece and the vowels were created. Those vowels were Greek vowels and that’s when it all went wrong.
There are less than one hundred common mouth shapes that are easy to do, which can be transposed into an alphabet for any language in the world. This was clearly the intention of the Phoenicians with their Proto Canaanite alphabet. It’s most bizarre that is is not regarded as a proper alphabet, when it is perhaps the ultimate alphabet and the parent of English, French, German, Arabic, Greek and Russian, amongst others. The shapes of the letters are different, but the sounds are essentially the same, providing you remove any vowels and semi vowels.
These Phoenicians were the geniuses of their time, long before the Greeks could read and write, so the Phoenicians taught them their alphabet. Plato didn’t have a high opinion of their obsession with money years later, but to them it was a good measure of success.
The Phoenicians made and advanced ship, kind of a ships equivalent of a production line, like an Ikea table you can build yourself in next to no time.
But then the barbaric Romans came. Upto this point, nobody had really considered the Roman’s to be much of a threat. But they found a copy of the ship building plans and soon built an empire. That empire involved the Romans convincing the world that they were the true geniuses by rewriting history.
They attempted to destroy all records of creation of the Phoenicians and Greeks. they stole their gods, their inventions and pretty much everything else, including the alphabet.
Now known as the Latin alphabet, what the Romans didn’t know was that they should have created their own vowels, because they had learned Greek vowels and forced pretty much everyone else in the Roman Empire to learn them, then England did the same with the English Empire.
Today, we are stuck with a broken alphabet. In the beginning, the Phoenician alphabet was a master-stroke of mnemonic genius, but the Romans destroyed it, along with correct education of alphabets for the next few thousand years.
Even the latest books based up Bopomofu systems of whatever today, use Romanisation translations. How many people actually speak Roman ? I don’t know any, unless you count a few that speak some mediocre modern Latin.
The English alphabet is not standardised. it should be, as it was in Finland, which is why Finland has the superior education system when compared to England, because the process of learning itself is easier, because the Finnish alphabet has been standardised once more to make it Phoenetic.
People change over time and lose sight of the purpose of alphabets, but even in those times in ancient Egypt, the priests knew the held the science of the age and nobody could touch it.
This was observed for several hundreds of years, especially during times like the Black Death. In England, the people from the moved South, escaping the terrible disease, but the people from the South moved North. it was everywhere, but they people could not tell each other. People from the same country, speaking the same language, could not understand each other.
The powers that be realised that it was time for standardisation and set about it. However, there was no postal service to speak of, no radio, television or internet, so the cities use the newer vowels and the rural farming communities stuck with the old vowel sounds. Other than some minor changes, such as the English letter THORN (TH) being removed from the alphabet, pretty much nothing has changed. This even is known as the great vowel shift and lasted for hundreds of years. It is the pinnacle of the difference between the classes of British society even today, where you can ask a native speaker to do a farmers accent or to do the accent of Lord.
The basic principles of the spelling and pronunciation of this age old system all but removed the idea of dyslexia, but in comprehensive schools today, very few young people get taught the history of the alphabet, so never understand how to spell. In Grammar schools there is a much better chance you will be taught and in ‘Public school’ (In Britain public school means private), you most certainly will be taught these things, but you won’t teach the farmer of ‘commoner’, as it is frowned upon in British society for these different classes to mingle, even today.
Also, it might be interesting to you to look up: Bopomofu and Matteo Ricci.
I just re-read this and see countless spelling errors. Such irony. :wink: