Tironian notes

Tironian notes (Latin: notae Tironianae; or Tironian shorthand) is a system of shorthand invented by Tiro (who died in 4 BC), Marcus Tullius Cicero's slave and personal secretary, and later a freedman.[1] Tiro's system consisted of about 4,000 symbols that were extended in classical times to 5,000 signs. During the medieval period, Tiro's notation system was taught in European monasteries and was extended to about 13,000 signs.[2] Tironian notes declined after 1100 but were still in some use in the 17th century, and a very few are still used today.[3][4]

Tironian notes
CreatorMarcus Tullius Tiro
Created60s BC
Time period
1st century BC – 16th century AD
Statusa few Tironian symbols are still in modern use
Et: U+204A; MUFI

Note on sign counts

Tironian notes can be themselves composites (ligatures) of simpler Tironian notes, the resulting compound being still shorter than the word it replaces. This accounts in part for the large number of attested Tironian notes, and for the wide variation in estimates of the total number of Tironian notes. Further, the "same" sign can have other variant forms, leading to the same issue.



Nicknamed "the father of stenography" by historians,[3] Tiro (103? BC – 4 BC) was a slave and later a freedman who served as Marcus Tullius Cicero's (106 – 43 BC) personal secretary. Like others in his position, Tiro was required to quickly and accurately transcribe dictations from Cicero, such as speeches, professional and personal correspondence, and business transactions, sometimes while walking through the Forum or during fast-paced and contentious government and legal proceedings.[5]

The only systematized form of abbreviation in Latin at the time was used for legal notations (notae juris), but it was deliberately abstruse and only accessible to people with specialized knowledge. Otherwise shorthand was improvised for note-taking or writing personal communications and these notations would not have been understood outside of closed circles. Some abbreviations of Latin words and phrases were commonly recognized, such as those inscribed on monuments, but according to literature professor Anthony Di Renzo, "Up to this point, no true Latin shorthand existed."[5]

Scholars believe that after learning about the intricacies of the Greek shorthand system, Cicero recognized the need for a comprehensive, standard Latin notation system and delegated the task of creating one to his slave, Tiro, whose highly refined and accurate method became the first standardized and widely adopted system of Latin shorthand. Tironian notes (notae Tironianae), also known as Tironian shorthand, consisted of abbreviations with Latin letters, abstract symbols contrived by Tiro, and symbols borrowed from Greek shorthand. Tiro's notes represented prepositions, truncated words, contractions, syllables, and inflections. According to Di Renzo, "Tiro then combined these mixed signs like notes in a score to record not just phrases, but, as Cicero marvels in a letter to Atticus, 'whole sentences.'"[5]


Dio Cassius attributes the invention of shorthand to Maecenas, and states that he employed his freedman Aquila in teaching the system to numerous others.[6] Isidore of Seville, however, details another version of the early history of the system, ascribing the invention of the art to Quintus Ennius, who he says invented 1100 marks (Latin: notae). Isidore states that Tiro brought the practice to Rome, but only used Tironian notes for prepositions.[7] According to Plutarch in "Life of Cato the Younger" (1683), Cicero's secretaries established the first examples of the art of Latin shorthand:

This only of all Cato's speeches, it is said, was preserved; for Cicero, the consul, had disposed in various parts of the senate-house, several of the most expert and rapid writers, whom he had taught to make figures comprising numerous words in a few short strokes; as up to that time they had not used those we call shorthand writers, who then, as it is said, established the first example of the art.

Plutarch, "Life of Cato the Younger"[8]


There are no surviving copies of Tiro's original manual and code, so knowledge of it is based on biographical records and copies of Tironian tables from the medieval period.[5] Historians typically date the invention of Tiro's system as 63 BC, when it was first used in official government business according to Plutarch in his biography of Cato the Younger in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1683).[9] Before Tiro's system was institutionalized, he used it himself as he was developing and fine-tuning it, which historians suspect may have been as early as 75 BC when Cicero held public office in Sicily and needed his notes and correspondences to be written in code to protect sensitive information he had gathered about corruption among other government officials there.[5]

There is evidence that Tiro taught his system to Cicero and his other scribes, and possibly to his friends and family, before it was widely used. In "Life of Cato the Younger ," Plutarch wrote that during Senate hearings in 65 BC relating to the first Catilinarian conspiracy, Tiro and Cicero's other secretaries were in the audience meticulously and rapidly transcribing Cicero's oration. On many of the oldest Tironian tables, lines from this speech were frequently used as examples, leading scholars to theorize it was originally transcribed using Tironian shorthand. Scholars also believe that in preparation for speeches, Tiro drafted outlines in shorthand that Cicero used as notes while speaking.[5]


Isidore tells of the development of additional Tironian notes by various hands, such as Vipsanius, "Philargius," and Aquila (as above), until Seneca systematized the various marks to be approximately 5000 in number.[7]

Use in the Middle Ages

Entering the Middle Ages, Tiro's shorthand was often used in combination with other abbreviations and the original symbols were expanded to 14,000 symbols during the Carolingian dynasty, but it quickly fell out of favor as shorthand became associated with witchcraft and magic and was forgotten until interest was rekindled by Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century.[10] In the 15th century Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Sponheim, discovered the notae Benenses: a psalm and a Ciceronian lexicon written in Tironian shorthand.[11]


A few Tironian symbols are still used today, particularly the Tironian “et”, used in Ireland and Scotland to mean and (where it is called agus in Irish and agusan[12] in Scottish Gaelic), and in the “z” of “viz.” (for ‘et’ in videlicet—though here the "z" is really a Latin abbreviation sign, encoded as a casing pair U+A76A Ꝫ and U+A76B ꝫ).

In blackletter texts (especially in German printing) it was used in the abbreviation ⁊c. = etc. (for et cetera) still throughout the 19th century.

The Tironian "et" can look very similar to an r rotunda, , depending on the typeface.

In Old English manuscripts, the Tironian "et" served as both a phonetic and morphological place holder. For instance a Tironian "et" between two words would be phonetically pronounced "ond" and would mean "and." However, if the Tironian "et" followed the letter "s ," then it would be phonetically pronounced "sond" and mean water (ancestral to Modern English sound). This additional function of a phonetic as well as a conjunction placeholder has escaped formal Modern English; for example, one may not spell the word "sand" as "s&" (although this occurs in an informal style practised on certain internet forums). This practice was distinct from the occasional use of "&c." for "etc. ," where the & is interpreted as the Latin word et ("and") and the "c." is an abbreviation for Latin cetera ("(the) rest").

Support on computers

The use of Tironian notes on modern computing devices is not always straightforward. The Tironian et ("and") is available at Unicode point U+204A, and can be made to display (e.g. for documents written in Irish or Scottish Gaelic) on a relatively wide range of devices: on Microsoft Windows, it can be shown in Segoe UI Symbol (a font that comes bundled with Windows Vista onwards); on macOS and iOS devices in all default system fonts; and on Windows, macOS, Google Chrome OS, and Linux in the free DejaVu Sans font (which comes bundled with Chrome OS and various Linux distributions).

Some applications and websites, such as the online edition of the "Dictionary of the Irish Language ," substitute the Tironian et with the box-drawing character U+2510 ┐, as it looks similar and displays widely. The numeral 7 is also used in informal contexts such as Internet forums and occasionally in print.[13]

A number of other Tironian signs have been assigned to the Private Use Area of Unicode by the Medieval Unicode Font Initiative (MUFI), who also provide links to free typefaces that support their specifications.

See also


  1. Di Renzo, Anthony (2000), "His Master's Voice: Tiro and the Rise of the Roman Secretarial Class" (PDF), Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 30 (2), retrieved 31 July 2016
  2. Guénin, Louis-Prosper; Guénin, Eugène (1908), Histoire de la sténographie dans l'antiquité et au moyen-âge; les notes tironiennes (in French), Paris, Hachette et cie, OCLC 301255530
  3. Mitzschke, Paul Gottfried; Lipsius, Justus; Heffley, Norman P (1882), Biography of the father of stenography, Marcus Tullius Tiro. Together with the Latin letter, "De notis", concerning the origin of shorthand, Brooklyn, N.Y, OCLC 11943552
  4. Kopp, Ulrich Friedrich; Bischoff, Bernhard (1965), Lexicon Tironianum (in German), Osnabrück, Zeller, OCLC 2996309
  5. Di Renzo, Anthony (2000), "His Master's Voice: Tiro and the Rise of the Roman Secretarial Class" (PDF), Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 30 (2), retrieved 31 July 2016
  6. Dio Cassius. Roman History. 55.7.6
  7. Isidorus. Etymologiae or Originum I.21ff, Gothofred, editor
  8. Plutarch (1683), "Life of Cato the Younger", The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated by John Dryden
  9. Bankston, Zach (2012), "Administrative Slavery in the Ancient Roman Republic: The Value of Marcus Tullius Tiro in Ciceronian Rhetoric", Rhetoric Review, 31 (3): 203–218, doi:10.1080/07350198.2012.683991
  10. Russon, Allien R. (n.d.), "Shorthand", Encyclopædia Britannica Online, retrieved 1 August 2016
  11. David A. King, The ciphers of the monks: a forgotten number-notation of the Middle Ages
  12. Dwelly, William Robertson, Michael Bauer, Edward. "Am Faclair Beag - Scottish Gaelic Dictionary". www.faclair.com.
  13. Cox, Richard (1991). Brìgh nam Facal. Roinn nan Cànan Ceilteach. p. V. ISBN 978-0903204-21-7.

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