Medieval arts on phonetic verbatim mnemonics

Mnemonics based on specific letters are very effective when verbatim memorization is required. Verbatim memorization is good for poetry, acting, and sacred texts. It was one of the most admired skills in medieval philosophy. Even those of us who do not need this skill can use it in combination with other skills.

If you’re keen on exploring your memory and discovering new techniques that draw inspiration from ancient memory methods, you’ll love diving into my memory masterclass! You do not have to pay the full price. Contact [email protected] and ask for a deep discount. Keep in mind, because this technique is a bit advanced, it’s best to have some foundational memory training under your belt before giving it a go.

Major system reference

Today the major system is the main proponent of verbal mnemonics. There is a table of associations between numbers and specific letters, which enables the creation of stories encoding numbers or mental palaces encoding words in foreign languages.

I almost never use the major system. It is based on audio cues and specific letters, while I prefer working with visualizations: it is faster and logically more effective. Additionally, I need to memorize content from at least three different languages. When I need to use verbal mnemonics I use some of the older methods.

Connection to stenography

Stenography is another art of writing down verbatim very fast. To do that, stenographers use several tricks.

  1. Use the consonants only. Like in Semitic languages, the vowels are understood from the uniqueness of the combination. Consider “Tnx”. You understand what it means.
  2. Use one or two strokes per letter. Specific writing systems and stroke optimizations were competing for the most effective notation. Two letters might look very similar, and again the differentiation comes from the context.
  3. Symbols are used for the most common words. Like “msg 2 u s gft 4 u”. You kind of understand what I mean.

Today in messaging we use some elements of shorthand. On average shorthand is x2 faster than regular typing…

Verbal mnemonics origins

Since the Latin writing system is very accurate, the roman mnemonics focused on various methods of loci. They did not have to worry that they will forget the word itself. Semitic languages look like stenographic texts: very simple letters and only consonants are written. Therefore there are multiple verbal systems used by Jewish rabbis and Muslim hafiz (literally meaning memorizers).  These methods usually include:

Music mnemonics. Reciting the text with musical cues. The musical cues are specific per area and a part of oral tradition. A common example is how children remember the alphabet by singing the ABCs. It was use to remember complex things.


Acronyms. Typically used with a list. The first letter (consonant) of each word in the list is written down in a form that creates a phrase. For example, the circle of fifth is music is Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.

Clearly, you need to recite and use the relevant texts many times until these mnemonics work. Quite often they are used together with the method of loci or a mindmap. The visualization provides general meaning, and the specific formulation is recited.

Famous users

About the end of the 15th century, Peter of Ravenna provoked such astonishment in Italy with his mnemonic feats that he was believed by many to be a necromancer. His Phoenix artis memoriae went through as many as nine editions. The book offers a great deal of self-promotion by the author, who claims in it to have had a prodigious memory when young, able to memorize the whole civil law code at age ten. is actual system has been analyzed as based on alphabetical keys, and what amounts to a topical concordance.


A concordance is an alphabetical list of the principal words used in a book or body of work, listing every instance of each word with its immediate context. A concordance is more than an index, with additional material such as commentary, definitions, and topical cross-indexing.

Basically, this enables another form of dual coding. In a regular form, I remember where in the text I am and thus I remember which word comes next. Here I remember where in the text each word is, and can cross-reference and comment on texts based on specific words.

Creating and maintaining concordances is very hard work. It is reserved almost entirely to religious texts and classical authors like Shakespeare.  In addition to the accuracy of verbatim memorization, it enables complex and remarkable verbal associations. This is very cool for people who need to debate relying on complex texts.

This method can be useful with words and combinations of words that are very rare. For example, there are two occurrences of “To be or not to be” in Hamlet, with somewhat different text and interpretations.

Skip words

Clearly, something like concordance is useful only with rare combinations of words. The most common words are skip words. We do not really need to write them or remember them. The Russian language does not have articles like “a” and “the”, yet Russian literature is highly respected.

Even in classical texts, there are many skip words like “he” or “they”. When the author does not want us to skip the word, he explicitly writes the relevant names.

When we talk rather than write, the situation is much worse. There are clichés, parasitic words, unnecessary adjectives, and repetitions. The result is very verbose. Non-classical texts are still verbose. Only after line editing, does the text become accurate and concise. Prominent orators weigh every word in their texts. Each word comes in labor, and thus when the text is done the recitation is easy.

Logical models

When we analyze classical works, every word has a meaning. For each word, we can ask: why was this word used rather than the alternative? Does it have an emotional or a logical meaning that we missed? Maybe there was a clever wordplay in innuendo, or maybe the phrase refers to some local customs.

This analysis often shows deficiencies in translation, especially in classical texts. Nabokov wrote Lolita separately in several languages because he could not trust the translation to anyone else. The Bible combines ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words as some books of the bible were written in Babylon.

Letters as numbers

In Hebrew, every letter is also a number. The method is used in both directions. From a letter to numbers for analysis of the text comparing words with a similar numeric value. From numbers to letters to remember specific numbers as phrases.

This method is not mathematically elegant. If you do not know Hebrew, compare it with Roman numerals for 149: CXLIX, 1383: MCCCLXXXIII. It is not pretty, and it gets worse as numbers rise. The method predated our digital system by millennia, so it was improved.

For every consonant to get a number, you need more than decimal numbers.  Putting two consonants per digit does work yet it introduces ambiguity. The ambiguity is not very bad if we carefully select the correspondence per language.

Dominic system

Memory masters use the ancient traditions very loosely. The Dominic System is a mnemonic system similar to the Major System. It was invented by Dominic O’Brien. It is a person-action (PA) system that encodes 4 digits at a time into compound images made up of a person and an action.

The Dominic system is a system for memorizing long sequences of numbers by first converting them into pairs of letters, and then associating those letters with easier-to-remember people and actions. And the letters are not just consonants. Why was it created this way?

The modern memory champions use PAO to remember things, and they use long PAO tables. If during the competition, due to stress or momentary lapse of judgment they forget an entry in a PAO table they need to retrieve than entry, so they use the letters that facilitate word-building and not disambiguation.

If you are not a competitive memory athlete, you can bypass this limitation by using significantly shorter single-digit encoding tables.



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