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~zh: The Lost Consonant


From Fashionable Realtime and reprinted in the May/99 NCRA Journal of Court Reporting


English is really not unique. It is vignettes of many languages fused in a colourful and powerful way to create the commodity that we service. The most striking foreign component is that of French, and its presence is often taken for granted. For realtime reporters, one characteristic is the eloquent and sometimes alarming sound embodied in words such as beige and genre.

Linguists refer to this odd consonant as a sibilant fricative. It appears typographically as zh or , depending on which dictionary you use. If we need to be reminded of its significance to our work, consider that its frequency among all of the English sounds is exactly one per cent. This means that on average we hear and stroke this sound for nearly five full minutes in every eight hours of writing. To push the boundaries of my illustration, one solid hour of spoken English at 180 words per minute yields, on average, 108 occurrences of the zh consonant.

Probably few of us have ever known a problem with writing zh, but we've all winced at writing rouge or regime. It is the forgotten wrinkle in the teaching of shorthand theory. But it's a simple matter, and just reading this will likely remove its subtle mystique and prevent hesitation the next time it sneaks into everyday language on the job.

To simplify the process of translating zh either on your computer or directly from your notes, you must know it in three positions: beginning words, ending words, and medially.

Beginning position:

Write it in a new way to prevent conflicts with G and J. For example, genre might erroneously translate as Jenner or Johner.  A common French male given name is Jean (pronounced zhn), but you will undoubtedly translate John if you don't have a method in place. To prevent conflicts with other proper names, it may be wise to avoid the asterisk. Instead, define a new consonant such as SDH- to write this finite list: Jacques, (pronounced zhk), Jean, gendarme, genre, and je ("I" for many French expressions, once entered as SDHE, will never conflict with SKWRE for, say, gentlemen). Now learn to recognize your new consonant when you see it, put the five words into your regular dictionary, and be sure to revise your phonetic dictionary to translate a close phonetic equivalent of your choice, presumably j.

Final position:

Having 350 ~age words in English pronounced as "ij" demands that we use a separate attaching stroke to do the job. Not to confuse that with the same suffix that's pronounced zh on French-derived words, we need to take stock on its population of about 60 and decide whether it's useful to write words such as corsage with the same suffix or to devise another. There are no adverse consequences in using the same stroke; only added mental effort to apply it to two different sounding suffixes. However, there are about 20 other words that end in the zh sound, such as beige and prestige, that mitigate in favour of a unique outline for this consonant in final position. I highly recommend the steno -JZ for its simplicity and easy adaptability.

Now define it in your phonetic dictionary as ge, or better still, zh. Using this new consonant will make little difference to the translations of luge or rouge, but a steno outline such as -AJZ certainly clarifies a long list of words with the zh suffix, such as collage, massage, and mirage.

Medial position:

When zh occurs somewhere within a word, it sometimes takes care of itself, stenotypically speaking. Thus most ~sia words such as amnesia and ~sion words such as decision need no special consideration because there are other ways to identify the sound, e.g., AM /NAOEZ /YA and TKAOE /SIGS, to render clear outlines that are easy to decipher in context. But wait. There's more!

To avoid hundreds of oddities such as as your for azure, Expo sure for exposure, lease you're for leisure, mesh you are for measure, and so forth, we must continually tax our memories with unusual solutions. Stop it! This isn't necessary if instead we use initial or final zh keys. Doing so means no memorization and perfect translations for every word defined. Asia, Brezhnikoff, casual, deja vu, pleasure, regime, and seizure will get you started, but there are many more.

Honing your realtime techniques is a simple matter of solving small problems. Taking them one at a time, as you might with the French zh consonant, is easy, rewarding, and the sign of a true realtiming professional.

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-WM, London


Fashionable Realtime for Steno Writers is the best of all the change-your-theory books I've read, and I think I must have them all. No other book on the subject is so thorough, so professional, so well researched. On top of these things, your humorous treatment of such a frustrating and challenging undertaking makes it seem dare I say? fun.

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I'm a real fan of Fashionable Realtime — in fact, it's on the bookshelf next to my computer for easy reference — and have found the suggestions and word lists to be incredibly helpful, especially those dealing with technical prefixes and suffixes.

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