Why do we still use stenographers?

Super-fast shorthand: stenographers are still in demand

A quick stroke, an arc, inclined a little to the right. It looks like a capital Y, which Helmut Röhrig writes on his pad in a matter of seconds. With an old-fashioned fountain pen and green ink. Born in Bonn, he has been working in the stenographic service of the state parliament of Rhineland-Palatinate for 22 years. What SPD Prime Minister Malu Dreyer, CDU parliamentary group leader Julia Klöckner and Co say in the plenum in Mainz, Röhrig puts on paper. "We document a piece of national history through our protocols," he says. With up to 400 syllables per minute.

Röhrig learned shorthand during his training in the administration of justice in North Rhine-Westphalia. He competed for fun, was quick, faster than others. After his first position as a stenographer with the city of Munich, he applied in Rhineland-Palatinate. Nationwide, the state is the only one that requires administrative training for its stenographers in the state parliament.

According to the Association of Parliamentary and Negotiating Stenographers, there is generally no standardized training for the profession in Germany. A good general education, a feeling for language and of course the shorthand are a prerequisite. "Those who start from scratch have to study intensively for at least two years," says association spokesman Detlef Peitz.

One page for six minutes of speaking time

However, the biggest challenge facing stenographers is not speed. "Slow but indistinct speakers are difficult to record," says Röhrig. Or when there is unrest in a debate and three MPs speak at the same time. To be on the safe side, audio recordings are made - even during long committee meetings. The top priority is always: The content of what is said is not changed.

After several hours in a joint meeting of the finance and internal affairs committee, Röhrig's block is closely described. In the left column a single symbol, the name of the speaker. To the right of what has been said. The 53-year-old government director writes in small letters, one page of transcript corresponds to around six minutes of speaking time. Analytical minutes are made of committee meetings, in indirect speech. Sometimes a stenographer works for four or five hours. In the plenary, on the other hand, there is a change every ten minutes, moods are reproduced there, interjections and applause are recorded.

Röhrig remembers his first impression from the Rhineland-Palatinate parliament in 1992: "A bill was being discussed and everyone who agreed should stand up. That was impressive." Days like the swearing-in of the former Prime Minister Kurt Beck (SPD) were of course remembered.

"Anyone who masters shorthand well today can earn a golden nose with it"

Edited verbatim transcripts are made of the regular plenary sessions, which means that the speeches are only slightly edited in terms of the language. According to spokesman Klaus Lotz, a total of nine stenographers are employed in the state parliament. Anyone who does not attend the meeting draws up minutes in the office. One hour of debate can mean up to eight or ten hours of writing, depending on the topic, says Röhrig. Because the texts have to be completed promptly, the speakers have the opportunity to correct them until the next meeting.

Nevertheless, the error rate is almost zero, emphasizes Lotz. This is also a reason why stenographers are still used despite sound recordings. However, technical progress at the end of the 1960s meant that the shorthand was less taught and learned, says the President of the German Stenographers Association, Hannelore Schindelasch. The result: "Anyone who is good at shorthand today can earn a golden nose with it." Besides parliaments, areas of application are large companies or the media. The Association of Parliamentary Stenographers now has around 150 members.

However, not every stenographer can read the notes of his colleagues: Based on experience, everyone makes their own abbreviations apart from the basic font. Röhrig's capital Y stands for Budget and Finance Committee. His specialty. He sits down in front of his PC and opens the block. A reading lamp shines on the green ink. The color is more pleasant on the eyes, says Röhrig and smiles. Or maybe it was just his little ritual.