How does that keyboard work?
This is by far the most common question I get while on the job. And though I've been asked this question time and time again by friends, random bypassers, or family members, I still struggle when I attempt to respond to the question of how steno works. So forgive me if you still have trouble understanding it after this quick and dirty intro to steno.
The reason why stenographers can write so much faster than typists can is because we write words and phrases using a phonetic shorthand which simplifies words into phonemic skeletons or their bare constituent sound units. We (stenographers) define each word in our dictionaries with the minimum amount of phonetic information necessary in order to differentiate one word from the next.
The steno keyboard is divided into two halves: The left side contains all the consonant sounds that appear at the beginning of words, the right side contains the consonant sounds for the ends of words, and you have the vowel keys in the middle which are operated with the thumbs. It looks like this:
Now, unlike regular keyboards, where you can only press one key at a time, on a steno machine you can press down any number of keys at once just like you would to play a chord on a piano. Whereas the typist inputs words one letter at a time, spelling things out fully, the stenographer can take down all the sounds of the word in one simple stroke which can sometimes amount to 10 or 13 keys pressed all at once! Each chord that is pressed can be expanded out to entire words, phrases, or sentences; but in general, the base unit is one syllable per chord.
Since the computer always reads the chords from left to right, the letters don't get jumbled up. When the software receives the raw shorthand forms, it looks for a corresponding entry in a dictionary file which matches all the shorthand to the English translations (yes, it is a painstaking process to memorize and get all those entries in!) and out pops the English word.