Ever Heard Phonographic Court Reporting, Interrog?

Media historians tend not to think much of the use of the phonograph for secretarial dictation—the scenario where someone talks into it so that someone else can copy the recorded words onto paper afterwards.  Maybe that’s because they see it as a misguided focus of nineteenth-century promoters, a dead end from which the phonograph needed to be deflected towards musical entertainment in order to become commercially successful.  Or maybe it’s that they assume the recordings themselves must have been unexciting compared with musical recordings, audio theater, field recordings, home recordings, spoken letters, or pretty much anything else.  In most other situations, the value of recorded audio lay to at least some extent in its uniquely thorough representation of sound, but with dictation the goal was a written document that couldn’t be told apart from other ordinary written documents made in other ways.  What could we possibly stand to learn from studying recordings that take so little advantage of their character as recordings?

The Stenographer’s Friend (Edison, 1910)

Quite a lot, perhaps, if we’re interested in how people have adapted ways of speaking to new technologies of communication.  I introduced this argument in my article “The Artifice of Nineteenth-Century Phonographic Business Dictation,” Velvet Light Trap 72 (Fall 2013), pp. 3-16.  As I explain in the abstract:

When the phonograph was used to generate a typewritten business letter, the goal was not to produce a “record” of a given speech event but to allow the dictator to compose a socially acceptable written document quickly and conveniently. The practical need to correct mistakes in recorded dictations led to the formulation of editing techniques that anticipated those associated with later “art” phonography and also predated comparable editing practices in film.

One obstacle in the way of studying the early use of the phonograph for secretarial dictation is that actual cylinders of this kind from circa 1888-1910 are extraordinarily scarce—I know of only one solid example.  After all, the standard practice was to “shave” (erase) such cylinders for re-use as soon as they’d been transcribed.

The Stenographer’s Friend (Edison, 1910)

Today, that makes it difficult to tell whether contemporaneous written sources, which are often prescriptive rather than descriptive, reflect actual practice.  It’s true that many mass-produced training cylinders survive, such as this one, but they were contrived to help secretaries practice transcribing some target number of words per minute, not to help dictators practice handling difficult or confusing situations which the talking-machine industry might have preferred not to acknowledge too openly.  For example, how should dictators fix slips of the tongue or indicate when they’d changed their minds about what should go into a given letter?  We know what solutions the industry recommended, and I wrote about them in my Velvet Light Trap article, but we don’t know as much as we might like about what people actually did.

Along with the creation of business letters, there was another scenario in which the cylinder phonograph was used for secretarial dictation: court reporting.  In fact, this may well have been the first practical use to which sound-recording technology was put on anything like a regular basis, considering that the first official delivery of a Bell-Tainter graphophone, on April 28, 1888, went to court reporter Edward Easton in Washington DC (“A Graphophone in Use,” Washington Post, April 29, 1888, p. 8).

What exactly did court reporting by phonograph entail?  Commentators of the time liked to speculate that phonographs would be used to record court proceedings directly from life, but that wasn’t yet practical because making an intelligible record required speaking into a tube or funnel.  Instead, the phonograph was introduced into established workflows centered on manual stenography.  A standard practice for some time past had been for highly-skilled reporters to take down proceedings in shorthand and then, since their notes were often unintelligible to anyone but themselves, to read them aloud afterwards to secretaries who would in turn generate clean texts for reference or publication.  Now reporters could instead read their shorthand notes into the phonograph and pass the recordings along to secretaries who would transcribe them, decoupling these two activities so that they wouldn’t need to take place in the same place or at the same time.  This approach was to survive changes in technology including shifts from handwritten shorthand to the stenotype machine and from wax phonograph cylinders (which were used in modified form through the 1950s) to wire and tape recorders (starting in the 1940s).  Vast quantities of records of official proceedings must have been produced in this way—including, I’d imagine, the text of the Congressional Record for many decades, but also countless humbler court proceedings of lesser import.  It might be worthwhile for the historians who use these documents as sources to take stock of how they came into being.

Ediphone cylinder being transferred on prototype CPS1

Meanwhile, this branch of phonographic dictation also spawned a distinctive way of speaking that became part of the occupational culture of court reporting.  I only discovered it myself when I heard some examples which I’ll be sharing with you in turn below.

I have in my collection five recorded Ediphone cylinders, four of which turned up together in a group.  The wax cylinder Edison introduced in 1888 had evolved in one direction for entertainment purposes, but in quite another for dictation purposes, so these are six inches long—two inches longer than “ordinary” cylinders—with a groove pitch of 150 tpi rather than the usual 100 or 200.  For a long time I had no convenient way to play them.  However, a few years ago I had an opportunity to try out a prototype of John Levin’s CPS1 cylinder playback system, and I took advantage of it to make digital transfers of (among other things) my five Ediphone cylinders.  Three of the four cylinders that had come in together as a group turned out to contain dictation by a court reporter—apparently some kind of interview about an automobile accident.  I heard the years 1955 and 1956 mentioned, which placed these recordings at the tail end of the period in which cylinder phonographs had been widely used for such purposes.  But what struck me most as I listened was the dictator’s peculiar way of speaking.  He spoke punctuation marks aloud in a humorless equivalent of Victor Borge’s “Phonetic Punctuation,” although he said “interrog” instead of “question mark”; and sometimes he spelled out a word or gave instructions to the transcriber.  That part was interesting but not surprising.  What surprised me was that the dictator gave idiosyncratic pronunciations to so many words.  For example, he routinely pronounced have to rhyme with save, rave, behave; and he pronounced lived as livid.  There’s more, but you’ll get your chance to hear it all for yourself below.

I asked a few other collectors of unusual recordings whether they’d encountered anything like this before.  None had.  However, a little searching did turn up some descriptions of similar speech practices.  In a 2011 blog post, Scott Parker reminisces as follows about his mother, a certified shorthand reporter:

Her standard method of translation was to dictate into a tape recorder so that pool typists at the agency could later type up the official court transcript from the tapes. That meant that she would take shorthand during the day, then dictate for much of the night in a carefully modulated, exaggeratedly enunciated way so the typists could clearly understand each word. End punctuation was called out using strange words; the only one I clearly remember was “interrog,” which meant “question mark.”

The same scenario surfaces in fiction, as we see in the following scene from Cheri Hardaway’s novel Worth Every Tear (Xulon Press, 2010), set in September 1986:

“Question: Isn’t it true, comma, Mr. Vogarty, comma, that the Plaintiff’s vehicle did not have working brake lights at the time of the accident, interrog?”

“Answer: The Defendant told the police officers at the scene of the accident that the car he hit had no brake lights, comma, yes, period.”

I glanced yet again at the clock to my right.  The hands were frozen in place.  I sighed and returned to my dictation.

Stenorette (1965), from Ted Nelson’s Junk Mail Cartons

It’s unclear to me whether the expression “interrog” is still in general use among court reporters today.  In Legal Terminology for Court Reporting (Delmar, Cengage Learning, 2009), Cathy Okrent writes of the “question mark (called ‘interrog’ in court reporting)” as though this were current usage, and Margie Wakeman Wells uses it in several blog posts dated between 2012 and 2015, e.g., “Where to Put the Interrog?”  On the other hand, another reporter—identified as “Tami”—associates it with an older generation in a Magnum Steno Fan Club message-board post, from 2009, commenting on “the old Stenorette days (‘Interrog!’).  Oh, the babies on here have no idea what I just said. HA!”  Her remark seems to imply that younger reporters wouldn’t recognize the expression “interrog,” or “Stenorette” either—that was the brand name for a particular make of audio tape recorder optimized for the stenographic market.  Moreover, I had to hunt a bit for these examples; there aren’t a lot of relevant hits for “interrog” on Google (as opposed to “interrog.” as a textual abbreviation).  My sense is that “interrog” is probably either obsolescent or obsolete, but any court reporters or others who can shed light on this matter are cordially invited to do so in the comments section below.

It’s likewise unclear when “interrog” was first used orally in this way—it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the usual authority for such questions.  The first appearance I was able to find myself occurs in Bates Torrey, “Typewriting Department,” Stenographer and Phonographic World 42:4 (October 1913), at p. 1287:

WHEN dictating to the phonograph we desire to be very particular and not say anything we should not say; and yet, like the bicyclist who, seeking to avoid a stone, seems to be irresistibly impelled by some unseen influence toward the obstruction—the speaker at the phonograph often hems, haws or hesitates, and can hardly do himself or the subject justice.

That is the case when everything starts forth rather unpropitiously, but not necessarily so, for many take to such dictation as a duck takes to water, and the records are excellent almost from the beginning.  This is brought about, we believe, by confidence and a certain self-assurance, the state of mind lending its aid to the natural and careful enunciation of every syllable and sound.

Many sounds of speech are elusive in a sense, and do not plow their way strongly upon the wax cylinder as a result of the vocal impulse.  The sound of S is a notable offender in this regard, and more than any other sound of the human voice (with possibly the exception of TH, which is infrequent) seems to escape from somewhere in its passage from the mouth of the speaker to the tiny tracks stippled on the wax.

Hence it is necessary that all S sounds should be most clearly spoken—exaggerated in a degree—and ofttimes even supplemented or extended by the familiar ejaculation of hesitancy—uh.  Hiss-uh for hiss would not be an unreasonable straining for the effect of distinctness desired, for the first sound of this word is hardly more than an expulsion of the breath, the ending a sibilant, and, therefore, the whole word is unfavorable for phonographic reproduction.  The procedure, then, must be to exaggerate the H and rather artificially extend the S; the effect will be a more audible sequence of sounds as applied to the recording diaphragm, and the identity of the word will be ensured.

But some transcribers do not like this uh-business; perhaps they agree with Dr. Holmes that to “er” is human—at any rate, it is disagreeable, and when S is the sign for the plural the better way is to say “plural” right after.  The importance of knowing the plural from the singular is so great that no possible room for doubt should exist, and this matter of mentioning it is the plan pursued by many dictators.  After a little experience the interpolation of the word “plural” comes to have no other significance than to explain.

In much the same way the dictation of the punctuation marks injects into the work peculiarities which cease to be such after they become familiar; namely, “com” for the comma, “sem” for the semicolon, and “period” which also implies the beginning of the new sentence, unless a “quote” or “end quote” is uttered.  Sometimes the ejaculation “interrog” ends the sentence, and the advice to “paragraph” may be necessary.

It goes without saying that the best results accrue when the fullest directions are given by the dictator, unless the operator is familiar with the style of the principal, and then much of his liking may go without saying.

There’s much of interest in this article, which seems to be describing conventions for all types of phonographic dictation rather than ones specific to court reporting, and I’ll return to it later.  For now, I only want to point out that it shows conclusively that the oral “interrog” dates back to 1913 at the latest.

It may, of course, be older, since there’s ample evidence of dictators using—or thinking about using—some kind of oral punctuation well before 1913.  For example, we read in a pamphlet of circa 1890 about typesetting newspapers by Linotype: “Copy as it comes into the office will be dictated by a ‘reader’ to the Phonograph, punctuation marks being called out, and proper names and uncommon words spelled” (James O. Clephane and Erastus A. Benson, “The Phonograph and the Linotype Machine,” TENHP Primary Printed Series, Edison Companies, Box 28, Pennsylvania and Nebraska).  Similarly: “Several newspaper men to whom I have shown the Phonograph working in connection with the Linotype, have become very enthusiastic over it; they say that they now see a way of relieving themselves from the grasp of the Union, as a ‘reader’ can give all directions on the Phonograph as to punctuations, arrangement, spelling of proper names, etc., and thus they be enabled to use girls, or other unskilled labor” (James O. Clephane to Samuel Insull, July 1, 1890).  Furthermore: “The successful user of the Phonograph for business purposes dictates to it exactly as he would to a stenographer, amending his sentences, saying ‘strike that out,’ giving his punctuation and the spelling of technical and peculiar words and names with the greatest freedom and rapidity” (James L. Andem, A Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph [Cincinnati: C. J. Krehbiel & Co., 1892], p. 53).  This last source implies that it was standard practice for dictators to specify punctuation marks orally even when they weren’t using the phonograph, and hence that this practice likely also predated the use of the phonograph in stenographic work, maybe by decades or even centuries.  (Did typesetters in 1750 call question marks “interrogs” in casual conversation?  How would we know?)  Unfortunately, I’ve searched in vain for details.  The following tantalizing passage appeared in the Shorthand Review 2:11 (November 1890), p. 186, identified there as excerpted from “advance sheets for the Complete Practical Type-Writer”:

Numbers, particularly those which have decimals, should be spoken with more clearness than any other parts of the work; and it is better to give each digit separately than to enumerate the entire number.  Thus it is better to say “one eight eight nine” than “eight hundred and eighty-nine.”  The decimal point should be indicated very unmistakably; thus it is better to say “fourteen point sixty-five” than to call it “fourteen and sixty-five hundredths.”

The marks of punctuation had better be called out than merely indicated by the inflection or pause.  That is, the name of the punctuation-point should be given in addition to the intonation or pause which would be made in ordinary good reading.  Examples of this are given under the head of “Comparing Work.”

I’d very much like to see the examples that are promised in that last sentence, but they’re not given in the excerpt, and The Complete Practical Type-Writer never seems to have made it to publication, even though it had been announced in the Publishers’ Weekly (June 28, 1890, p. 852) as forthcoming from Woolfall, Clark & Zugalla.  If there are any pre-1913 texts that describe exactly how punctuation marks were spoken aloud in such situations, I haven’t found them.  What seems clear, though, is that there was some tradition of oral punctuation that endured and evolved over time.  After all, “interrog” must have originated as a shortened form of “interrogation mark” or “interrogation point” that took root at a time when the alternative term “question mark” hadn’t yet become standard in the United States, and must afterwards have been passed on in stenographic circles mainly by word of mouth or microphone.

But let’s get back to my three Ediphone cylinders.  You’ll find audio for each of them below, together with a transcript that uses the following conventions:

  • “Uh” is transcribed as ~ (to make it unobtrusive)
  • Words given an idiosyncratic pronunciation, in my judgment, are marked with an asterisk (*)
  • Questionable or damaged passages are underlined, and two brief passages I couldn’t resolve to my satisfaction are highlighted in red: [xxx]
  • My spelling of proper names is based wherever possible on complementary outside sources, as with Orthy R. May (1912-2003), William H. Babnick (1913-1999), and so on.
  • Please alert me to any mistakes in transcription so that I can fix them!


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Miss Josephine Atanasio, from Florence Todd, Dictaphone Transcription: A Career for the Blind (1942).  The Dictaphone was the Ediphone’s principal rival in the wax-cylinder dictation machine market.

This is ~ record A for Albert; operator, this is an affidavit of Orthy R. May, it is not a— in the form of a deposition ~ and there’ll be no stipulation, you can make this on the ~ sixteen-pound paper, make an original and two carbon copies, that’s original and two, you don’t need to show any name at the top of the page and ~ start this off by copying the ~ sheet ~ in this record as far as I’ve gone ~ ~, and then ~ that’ll give you the spelling of the names you’ll run across, and I’ll ~ ~, after this it’ll be just written up as a regular testimony ~ ~, repeating a little bit from what I’ve written between Wilmot K. Royal comma, representing Mister Orthy May ~ comma, and ~ William C. Ralston ~ representing an ~ erstwhile ~ E-R-S-T-W-H-I-L-E defendănt* ~ comma, that ~ the deposition of ~ Mister M— cap May may M-A-Y be ~ taken at this time ~ comma, and ~ in the event no settlement of this ~ claim is agreed ~ upon, that ~ said ~ deposition may be ~ introducèd* and used ~ in any claim or action ~ that Mister cap May may M-A-Y file ~ in the future ~ comma, and upon the usual stipulation in such ~ cases ~ comma, that the objections ~ tō* any questions ~ are waived ~ at the time ~ except as to the form of the question—operator, that’s singular—period ~ is that ~ capital O period, capital K period interrog ~ indent Mister Royal, that is all right, period ~ operator, now drop down one extra double space ~ just leave one blank ~ double space in there and ~ we’ll put him on ~ ~ paragraph, put his name in all caps ~ Orthy R period May ~ comma, hāving* first ~ duly affirmed ~ that he would testify the truth comma, the whole truth comma, and nothing but the truth comma, was thereupon examined ~ and ~ testified as follows colon ~; center the next line all caps, examination by Mister Ralston colon ~; question, is [clears throat]—operator, I’ll repeat—question ~, is your name ~ Orthy R period May interrog; answer, yes ~ question, how old are you comma, mister May interrog; answer, I am ~—operator, figures—forty four; question, are you married or single interrog; answer, married; question, what is your wife apostrophe S name interrog; answer, Edna E-D-N-A initial L for Louie period, M— May; question, do you hāve* any children interrog; answer {garbled groove with echo: no, I do not ~; question, how long hāve* you been married interrog; answer—operator, spell it out—about fourteen years ~; question, how long hāve* you livèd* in Portland interrog; answer, băsically* thirteen years ~; question, what is your occupation interrog; answer, truck ~ driver for the ~ [xxx] post office; question, what kind of a truck ~ do you drive interrog ~; answer, at the present I am driving a ~ three hyphen ton [xxx] International ~; question, how long hāve* you been so occupied interrog; answer}, since the, uh—operator, figure—three R-D day of January of apostrophe five five ~; question, for the record ~ [stop and start] comma, I believe ~ the accident you were involvèd* in occurred on the—operator, figure—twenty three R-D day of March comma, nineteen fifty five ~ period, is that right interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, may I inquire comma, what ~ religious ~ faith ~ do you follow interrog ~; answer, I am a cap ~ Quaker comma, a cap ~ Friend capital F for Frank R-I-E-N-D; question ~, hāve* you been a member of ~ that ~ faith ~ for some ~ time interrog ~; answer, for approximately six years comma, going on six years ~; question, where do you live comma, Mister May interrog ~; answer, four eight one eight cap ~ Northeast ~—operator, spelled out—cap Ninth ~ in the cap City of Portland ~; question, how long hāve* you livèd* there interrog; answer, I hāve* ~ livèd* there at two different times ~ period ~—operator, one word—cap altogether I hāve* livèd* there for approximately eight years ~; question, do you rent ~ there or do you own the house interrog; answer, I own the house ~; question, do you recall the accident of March ~ twenty-three comma, nineteen fifty five interrog; answer, yes comma, I do; question ~ do you recall what day of the week ~ it was interrog; answer, yes comma, I do; question, what day was it interrog; answer, it was Wednesday evening; question, and ~ about what time interrog ~; answer ~, if I recall right ~ it was approximately ~—operator, figures—seven colon one five ~ in the evening ~; question ~ was it ~ getting dark ~ comma, or was it ~ dark ~ comma, or what was the condition interrog ~; answer, it was already dark ~; question, I believe you were driving west on ~ Killingsworth ~ period, is that right interrog; answer, yes comma, I was driving west on ~ Killingsworth ~; question, the accident occurred at the intersection of ~ Vancouver cap Avenue with ~ Killingsworth interrog; answer, that is right; question, at that point is ~ Killingsworth two lanes ~ going west and ~ two ~ lanes ~ going east ~ interrog; answer, yes ~ question, what lane were you in interrog ~; answer, I was in the right hyphen hand lane going west ~; question ~, what car were you ~ driving interrog; answer, I was driving a apostrophe five five ~ Chevrolet; question, that was your own car interrog; answer, yes comma, I had ~ just ~ bought it ~; question, who ~ was with you if anyone interrog; answer, my wife was ~ with me ~; question, and she was seated ~—operator, one word—alongside ~ of ~ you in the front seat interrog; answer, that is right ~; question, when you reachèd* the intersection of ~ Vancouver cap avenue ~ what was your intention interrog ~ [stop and start]; answer ~ well comma, as I crossèd* ~ cap ~ Moore—operator, that’s capital M for Moses ~ double O-R-E—~ cap street ~ comma, which ~ is a short ~ block ~ from ~ Vancouver, comma, the light ~ blinked ~ B-L-I-N-K-E-D amber ~ comma, and I snapped ~ S-N-A-double-P-E-D my foot ~ brake ~ three times ~ comma, and ~ when I pulled ~ up ~ at ~ the stop ~ the light ~ at that time was ~ red ~; question ~ were you intending to cross interrog; answer, I was intending to go directly tha-roo* the intersection ~; question, and you were in the right hyphen hand lane interrog ~; answer there is ~ just ~ the one lane ~ going that way ~; question, was any car ahead of you as you approachèd* that red light interrog; answer, no comma, there was not ~ period; end of the record.

The next record is introduced as record “F” and appears to belong to the same sequence as the previous record “A,” continuing Orthy May’s interview about the accident of March 23, 1955.  From record “A,” we know that May had been out driving in Portland, Oregon with his wife as a passenger and had stopped for a red light, where I’m guessing another car had probably then slammed into his.  However, record “F” is no longer about the details of the accident itself and instead goes into May’s injuries and their effect on his work and home life.  From one question about when May had last seen a particular doctor, we learn that the interview took place in 1956 or later.


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The Dictaphone Business Training Course Teacher’s Manual (1921).  Probably nothing like the equipment that was being used in the 1950s, but a nice picture nevertheless.

Record F for Frank, and I’ll repeat, what kind of work interrog; answer, it is a lighter run, and ~ I don’t hāve* to do ~ near as much work ~; question, what type ~ of ~ truck ~ is it you drive interrog; answer ~, International; question, what ~ weight ~ interrog; answer, three hyphen ton ~ truck ~; question ~ what kind of ~ mail do you handle generally interrog; answer, sacked ~ S-A-C-K-E-D mail and ~ package ~ mail; question ~ what is the average weight of the sackèd* ~ mail interrog ~; answer, they are not supposèd* to go over ~—operator, figures—ninety ~ pounds ~ period ~, of course I don’t hāve* to lift ~ the heavy ones ~ plural comma, I just ~ drag ~ them ~ comma, and that does ~ help a lot ~; question ~ you don’t ~ hāve* a helper on the truck interrog; answer, very seldom period, sometimes ~ plural, I do ~ semicolon ~ we help ~ each other out ~; question ~, when is the last time you saw D-R-period Davis ~ interrog; answer, I couldn’t say exactly period, it has been ~—operator, one word—some time ago; question, was it in nineteen fifty six interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, how long did you wear that ~ cap Taylor brace ~ comma, or ~ when did you discontinue wearing it interrog; answer, I discontinued ~ wearing the—operator, I’ll repeat—I discontinued ~ wearing the ~ Taylor brace ~ when I got the other brace ~ from D-R-period Davis ~; question, what type of ~ brace ~ did he prescribe interrog ~; answer ~, it is ~ more or less a corset ~ with a pad P-A-D over the sore ~ spot ~; question ~, is it made out of ~ canvas or leather interrog; answer, both ~ period ~, the corset ~ part is canvas ~ comma, but ~ it has a leather coverèd* ~ pad in the back ~ end ~; question, how long did you wear that brace ~ that ~ D-R-period Davis prescribèd* interrog; answer, I wore it ~ a great deal at the time period ~, I am not ~ wearing it ~ at the present ~; question, do you know when you last ~ wore it interrog ~; answer, it has been a couple or three weeks ~ ago since I last ~ wore it period ~, I hāve* had a great deal of ~ time off ~ comma, for one thing ~ [stop and start]; question ~, you hāven’t* lost ~ any ~ time from your work with the postal ~ service ~ since ~ the first of the year comma, hāve* you interrog; answer, no, period ~, there are times ~ comma, though ~ comma, a couple of different times ~ comma, that ~ I hāve* ~ taken time off ~ period, I didn’t hāve* to ~ but I felt ~ it would be a good idea tō* rest ~ up ~; question ~ did you take that off ~ on ~ sick ~ leave ~ or how interrog; answer, on annual leave ~; question ~, how would you spend your time when you took ~ such ~ days ~ off ~ interrog ~; answer, mostly I would go down to the coast ~ where my folks ~ live ~ comma, or down to ~ Clatskanie, C-L-A-T-S- [stop and start]—o-, operator, I’ll repeat that spelling—uh, C-L-A-T-S-K-A-N-I-E, where my wife apostrophe S folks ~ live ~ comma, and just ~ lay around ~; question, hāve* you done any work around the house ~ when you were off ~ duty ~ interrog; answer, wash ~ W-A-S-H ~ dishes ~ or sweep ~ the porch, comma, or something like that, period ~ my wife and I work ~ together on most of that ~ stuff ~; question, did you do any outside work interrog; answer, very little ~; question ~ what kind of outside ~ work ~ would you do interrog ~; answer ~ help ~ H-E-L-P paint ~ the house ~ period ~ the wife ~ done D-O-N-E about ~ three hyphen fourths ~ plural of it ~; question ~, what kind of a house ~ do you hāve* ~ interrog; answer, a ~ one hyphen story bungalow ~; question ~, what kind of ~ work ~ did you do, in ~ painting it interrog; answer, I just ~ done the painting; question, brush ~ painting interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, you had to get up ~ on a ~ ladder interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, did you do any other outside work interrog; answer, no comma, outside of ~ mowing the lawn; question ~, gardening interrog; answer, none whatsoever; question ~, did you use ~ a ~ spade comma, shovel comma, or rake ~ comma, or anything like that interrog ~; answer, I think I did rake ~ the lawn ~ once ~ with a bamboo ~ rake ~; question, how do you feel today interrog ~; answer, I feel pretty good comma, but ~ as I said before comma, the pain is always there period, ~ the more I work ~ the worse ~ it gets ~; question, do you mean that the pain is increasing as time goes on interrog ~; answer, yes comma, when I exercise ~, and ~ when I work ~ the pain gets ~ worse ~ comma, and it really hurts ~; question, is it any ~ more ~ noticeable in that respect now than it was last ~ March interrog ~; answer, I feel it isn’t as bad period, I feel it is gaining comma, but it isn’t well by a long ~ ways ~ plural; question ~ you hāve* ~ discontinued going to a doctor interrog, is that right interrog; answer, yes comma, I hāve* ~; question, you are not sure when you saw D-R-period Davis ~ the last time interrog; answer, no period, it has been ~— operator, one word—some time ago, period ~, I hāve* ~ been in a few times ~ and ~ gave him a few dollars ~ on ~ my bill ~ and ~ talkèd* tō* him on the phone ~ comma, and he always ahsks* ~ me how I feel ~; question, hāve* you seen any other doctōrs* ~ plural ~ except ~ the ones ~ plural you hāve* mentionèd* comma, Babnick comma, Lucas comma, Duncan comma, and Davis ~ interrog; answer, no comma, I hāve* not ~; question ~, as I understand ~ it comma, you never did go to a hospital ~ for ~ treatment ~ period; answer, not to a hospital; question, you went to the clinic ~ at ~ [stop and start]—operator, spell it out—cap ~ Eleventh ~ and ~ Yam Hill interrog; answer, yes comma, the clinic ~ indent Mister Ralston no further questions ~ period ~ [stop and start]—operator, now ~ draw a little short line in the center of the next line below that and then take a new page and we’ll make some kind of a certificate, I’ll dictate that on the next record at the end of this record [hung groove at end].

One more cylinder found in the same group, and dictated in the same voice, is identified as number “three” instead of being given a letter as in the other two examples.  It contains part of a different interview, this one by a police officer who had been sitting in a stationary patrol car with his partner at the wheel when it was struck by another vehicle.  It’s unclear to me whether or not this was the same accident that had involved Orthy May, but if it was, it seems a third vehicle must have plowed into the other two.  It might be possible to pin down more specifics by searching Portland newspapers or consulting court records, but my own interest lies less in the content of the interviews than the form the dictations took, so I haven’t investigated the incident any further.


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Record ~ three ~; I’ll repeat ~, did it ~ hāve* a hydromatic interrog; answer, no; question, was it a ~—operator, one word—gearshift ~ interrog; answer, yes ~; question, did you observe ~ whether your partner put ~ the car in gear interrog; answer, no comma, I didn’t ~ observe ~; question ~, but you did ~ leave ~ some rubber interrog ~; answer, yes comma, about a foot ~ of it ~ comma, probably ~; question ~, do you know ~ when the car came to a stop ~ whether he had left ~ it ~ in gear with the clutch ~ out ~ or not interrog ~; answer, what car are you talking about interrog ~; question, the car you were in period; answer, no comma, I don’t know; question, as I understand it ~ comma, you did not ~ see the car that ~ struck you before the impact ~ period; answer, I did not see it ~ comma, no; question ~, did you hear it interrog ~; answer, we heard ~ it ~ hit ~—operator, I’ll repeat—we heard it ~ hit comma, yes ~; question, I don’t mean the collision itself ~ period ~, did you hear ~ any noise ~ that it made ~ prior tō* the impact ~ interrog; answer, no; question ~, the noise of the motor or the tires ~ interrog ~; answer, I heard a ~ skid ~ at about the ~ same time we ~ heard the brakes ~ plural being applied ~; question ~, on the car that ~ struck you interrog; answer, yes ~; question, did you notice ~—operator, make this tire marks ~ two words, I’ll repeat—did you notice tire marks ~ after the collision interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, what ~ tire marks ~ did ~ the car ~ of the defendant leave ~ comma, if any interrog ~; answer, well comma, between thirty—operator, I’ll repeat—well comma, between thirty and ~ forty ~ feet ~ period ~, I can tell you here semicolon ~—operator, figures—thirty-one feet ~ comma—operator, figures—three inches ~ from the right ~ rear wheel ~ comma—operator, these are all figures—thirty-nine feet comma seven inches from the left ~ rear wheel comma, twenty-nine feet comma three inches ~ from the front left ~ wheel comma and ~ forty-two feet ten in— operator, operator, I’ll repeat—and forty-two feet comma ten inches from the right front wheel period [stop and start]; question ~, and there were visible tire marks ~ from those four wheels on the ~ pavement interrog; answer, yes ~; question, and they ~ led ~ L-E-D up ~ tō* what point ~ interrog; answer, the point of impact ~; question ~, there were no tire marks ~ after the impact ~ so far as you could see interrog; answer, no; question ~, except ~ the ~ three or four feet ~ that you left ~ interrog ~; answer, a foot and a hahf* ~; question, excuse me comma, I ~ misunderstood you period ~, did you hāve* ~ the lights ~ plural on your car interrog; answer, yes ~; question, what lights ~ plural were you ~ using ~ interrog ~; answer, headlights plural and ~—operator, one word—taillights ~ plural; question, high beam or dim ~ interrog; answer, I don’t know period, I wasn’t driving; question ~, do you know whether the taillights ~ plural on your car workèd* ~ interrog; answer, pardon interrog ~; question, did the taillights ~ plural on your car work ~ interrog ~; answer, yes ~ comma, we all check our cars ~ before we take them out ~ period ~, that is ~—operator, I’ll repeat—take them out ~ period, that is office ~ policy ~ period ~ we hāve* to check our cars ~ and ~ make a report each time we go on a shift ~; question, the ~—operator, make this brake lights ~ two words, I’ll repeat—question, the brake ~ lights ~ plural work ~ when the brakes ~ are applied interrog; answer, yes ~; question, but you don’t know whether your partner had his ~ foot on the brake ~ when he was parkèd* there interrog; answer no comma, I couldn’t say; question ~, did you see any attempt ~ of the car that ~ struck yours ~ plural tō* avoid ~ a collision comma, other than applying ~ the brakes ~ plural interrog; answer, no ~; question, what happenèd* tō* you as a result of the collision ~ interrog; answer, do you mean physically interrog; question, yes period ~ what did the impact do tō* you interrog ~; answer, well comma, it ~ ka-nockèd* ~ the wind ~ out of me ~ comma, and apparently the front ~ seat ~ of the car tha-roo* me ~ backwards ~ plural ~ because it ~ tore the front ~ seat of the car loose ~ comma, and I ended up ~ more or less on my back ~ underneath ~ the ~—operator, one word—dashboard ~ with my foot ~ up ~—operator, then a space ~—on ~ the ~ windshield ~; question ~, immediately prior tō* the collision did you hāve* your notebook ~ on your lap ~ interrog; answer, yes ~; question, and you were writing in it interrog; answer, yes ~; question, and that was your position at the time of impact interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, you were not ~ thrown out of the car interrog; answer, no; question, the car didn’t ~ tip ~ over interrog; answer, no ~; question ~, did you exchange information with the driver of the other car interrog; answer, I did not ~ comma, no N-O; question ~, did your partner talk with him interrog; answer, yes comma, he talkèd* tō* him ~; question ~, where did you go after the accident interrog ~; answer, tō* cap ~ Immanuel cap Hospital ~; question ~, was your car ~ driveable ~ D-R-I-V-E-A-B-L-E comma, the car that you were in ~ interrog ~; answer, well comma, it movèd* ~ M-O-V-E-D comma, yes ~ period ~, we got it down tō* ~ Immanuel cap Hospital ~; question, and that is how you got to the hospital interrog; answer, yes ~; question ~, how long did you stay ~ at Immanuel interrog; answer, I suppose ~ two hours ~; question ~, at that place ~ I assume they gave you ~ cap X ~ hyphen rays plural and a ~—operator, one word—checkup ~ period; answer, yes ~; question, what did they find ~ interrog; answer, I don’t know period ~, they never gave me a medical report ~ period, they turnèd* ~ it ~ over to my doctor ~; question ~, when did you first ~ personally conclude that you had ~ been hurt ~ interrog ~; answer, after I tried to get out of the prowl P-R-O-W-L car ~ comma, in fact ~ while I was still in the prowl car I couldn’t ~ breathe ~ for a few minutes ~; question ~, will you then state ~ what you observèd* about yourself ~ period ~ you had ~ difficulty in ~ breathing ~ period ~ what else interrog ~; answer, when I came tō* and ~ realizèd* I had been in an accident ~ I ~ came to and ~ got hold of the ~ mic ~ little M-I-K-E and ~ called in and ~ let them know I had ~ been in an accident ~; end of the record.

Now let’s begin our analysis by summarizing the idiosyncratic pronunciations heard on these three cylinders:

  • “Have, having” (transcribed “hāve, hāving”), etc. are pronounced long as in “behave, behaving.”  Meanwhile, “half” is pronounced with the broad “a” of “father” (transcribed “hahf”).  Both measures might have been taken to reduce ambiguity between “have” and “half.”
  • The verbal ending “-ed” is pronounced as a distinct syllable (transcribed “-èd”) in approached, covered, crossed, happened, introduced, involved, knocked, lived, mentioned, observed, parked, presented, reached, realized, supposed, talked, turned, and worked.  This might have originated as an attempt to compensate for the fact that acoustic-era recording technology wouldn’t have captured the final “d” reliably when these words were spoken in the usual way.  However, this should no longer have been a problem with electric recording, so maybe the goal was instead to sidestep ambiguities associated more directly with imprecise pronunciation.  Or it could have been an ingrained habit specific to the phonograph that was kept up even after it was no longer practically advantageous.  It’s unclear how the dictator would have distinguished livid from lived.
  • “To” is frequently pronounced like “toe” (transcribed “tō”), maybe to avoid confusion with “two.”  If Orthy May had injured his toe in the car accident, our dictator might have run into difficulties.
  • The homophones “through” and “threw” are both pronounced with two syllables: “tha-roo.”  Like final “d,” initial “thr” may not have been captured reliably with acoustic-era recording technology.  The transcriber would have had to decide which spelling to use from context.
  • The “k” in “knocked” is pronounced, making it a three-syllable word: “ka-nockèd,” presumably for disambiguation.
  • I’m hard pressed to explain other seemingly idiosyncratic pronunciations: “basically” with the first vowel as in “pass” (transcribed “băsically”); “defendant” with a final syllable as in “commandant” (transcribed “defendănt”); “doctors” with the final syllable long and emphasized (transcribed “doctōrs“); “asks” with the broad “a” of “father” (transcribed “ahsks”).  It’s possible that these pronunciations weren’t intended for disambiguation and instead reflected peculiarities of the way in which these words had been documented stenographically.

Some types of instructions are routinely preceded by the vocative “operator”: “I’ll repeat” (whenever the dictator backs up to re-read something), “one word,” “spell it out,” “figures” (specifying numerals), and so on.  Each cylinder ends either with the statement “end of the record” or a longer set of instructions equivalent to this.  The dictator says “plural” not only after plural nouns (brakes, doctors, fourths, lights, ones, rays, ways), but also after certain other words ending in “s”: sometimes, backwards and yours.  What distinguishes all these words is not that they’re plurals, but that each forms a minimal pair with a word without the “s,” such as brake, backward, or your.  The spoken punctuation marks are “interrog” for a question mark, “period,” “comma,” “colon,” “semicolon,” “hyphen,” “apostrophe”; also “indent” and “cap(ital).”  However, a final period in a turn at speaking often goes unmentioned, and capitals aren’t always specified where they would be expected.  It’s likely that the dictator was reading from a stenotype record in which the various punctuation marks were explicitly recorded (F P L T for period, R B G S for comma, ST P H for “interrog,” etc.).

Sometimes the dictator spells out a word letter by letter, usually immediately after pronouncing it, without further explanation of what he’s doing.  Cases include: 

  • Words the dictator might have thought the operator could be legitimately unsure how to spell: Clatskanie (which the dictator seems to need to go look up, stopping the phonograph in the meantime), driveable, erstwhile, Edna, Moore, and mike as an abbreviated form of microphone (i.e., mic).
  • Done where this runs contrary to normative English grammar: “The wife done about three-fourths of it.”
  • The second may in the quirky phrase “Mister May may….,” perhaps to confirm that this was really what was intended.  (But how would the transcriber have known not to write “Mister May may may”?)
  • Past tenses, e.g., blinked, snapped.  In two other cases, the dictator both spells out a past tense and gives it an exaggerated “-èd” pronunciation, simultaneously or in rapid succession: sacked and moved.  Spelling and exaggerated pronunciation thus seem to have been interchangeable and complementary strategies that were both available for doing the same work.
  • 3rd and Dr., to ensure that these expressions would be abbreviated as intended and not written out as third and doctor.
  • Pad, led, wash, prowl, friend, no, and help.  These cases are harder to assess, but they might involve specific words or sounds that had been ambiguous in the dictator’s prior experience of recording technology.  Prowl and friend could have fallen into the same phonetic category as through, for example.

Every now and then, the dictator also specifies that a word should be treated in an atypical way, as when he says “little M-I-K-E,” i.e., lower-case (because “Mike” would ordinarily be capitalized as a personal name) and “up—operator, then a space—on” (to distinguish “up on” from the more common “upon”).  A few instructions run contrary to what I’d consider correct usage, as when the dictator instructs the operator to write “sometime ago” instead of “some time ago.”

According to the “Typewriting Department” piece from 1913, dictators sometimes inserted “uh” intentionally after s to make it more clearly audible.  I see no evidence of that strategy here, but the dictator does says “uh” quite a lot, seemingly while he’s puzzling over his stenographic notes, and occasionally it’s difficult to be certain whether he’s saying “uh” or a word intended for transcription, as with “I hāve* ~ livèd* there at two different times,” which might conceivably be “I hāve* ~ livèd* there ~ two different times.”

There’s also the matter of intonation, which can be conveniently studied these days using such helpful tools as Drift.  The 1890 excerpt from The Complete Practical Type-Writer recommends that “the name of the punctuation-point should be given in addition to the intonation or pause which would be made in ordinary good reading”; that is, that intonation and oral punctuation should complement and reinforce each other.  Since the person dictating was generally also the person who had made the stenographic record of the original proceedings, the intonation of the dictation could conceivably even have mimicked an original intonation pattern lodged in memory.  But what actually happened?  I haven’t made an exhaustive study of intonation in my three Ediphone cylinders—maybe you would like to—but here’s one passage that may be representative:

Curiously enough, all the pitch accents fall here on syllables that wouldn’t have been part of the original dialog:

  • Ques-tion, conventionally inserted to structure the interview on paper.  An-swer is treated similarly.
  • Liv-ed, with emphasis on the first of two syllables that would originally have been one.
  • Inter-rog, shifting the rise in pitch associated with the end of a question to the final syllable of the oral punctuation.

This pitch contour may follow rules similar to the ones governing “ordinary” speech, but at the same time it can’t have directly mirrored the pitch contours of the original speech it’s supposed to represent.

I’ve written elsewhere about phonogenic activity, meaning behavior which people adapt so that when it’s mediated as audio the results will be more effective.  In the past, commentators had generally understood phonogenicity as a matter of subjects “sounding good” in an aesthetic sense, and I’ve extended it to cover linguistic adaptations (e.g., “I’m not here right now” on a telephone answering machine), studio sound effects as a source of illusions, and so on.  But the adaptations we hear in the speech on my three Ediphone cylinders are phonogenic too.  They belong to a distinctive branch of phonogenic behavior that’s been hard to study—and easy to ignore—for want of available examples.  So I’m happy to be able to share these.  Does anyone have others, interrog?

One thought on “Ever Heard Phonographic Court Reporting, Interrog?

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