Over at Abnrmal Intersts, Duane, who is probably smarter than me, because he can look at chicken scratches on ancient clay tablets and come up with stories about people with unpronounceable names, has an informative post on ancient Ugaritic written without vowels.
I have noticed that the letter-writers of the 19th century frequently shortened English words by omitting certain vowels and even consonants. For example, here is a sentence from a letter by Charles Darwin to Joseph D. Hooker1:
Secondly will you tell me, at a guess, how long an immersion in sea-water you shd. imagine wd. kill the more susceptible seeds?
Another sentence from another letter from Darwin to Hooker:
But I shd. like to hear whether you are prepared on reflexion to uphold this doctrine of the commonest being least widely disseminated on outlying islds.
Here are some examples from across the Atlantic. In 1817, the American naturalist Thomas Say wrote to his friend John F. Melsheimer2:
...the last set which has been recd from England was imported by a friend of mine...
With the highest respect
I remain your most Obdt Servt
And this is from another letter from Say to Melsheimer:
Philada April 26th 1823
My dear Sir!
I duly received yr excellent letter & more recently the valuable box of insects...
Interestingly, the practice of omitting the vowels appears to be common to several Middle Eastern languages, including the Ugaritic and Egyptian Hieroglyphics as well as the modern Hebrew and Arabic. I wonder if this practice started in conjunction with the invention of what seems to me labor intensive cuneiform writing. I suppose writing on soft clay wouldn’t be too difficult, but what about carving a long text on solid rock? Imagine yourself being forced to carve into hard rock some Hammurabi guy's bright ideas while sitting in the blazing sun with dust in your mouth and rock chips in your eyes. Wouldn't you be thinking hard to figure out a way to lessen your suffering? Obviously, the more letters a scribe could have omitted without becoming totally unintelligible the more time and energy he would have saved.
1. Burkhardt, F. (editor) 1996. Charles Darwin's Letters. A Selection 1825-1859. Cambridge University Press.
2. Weiss, H.B. & Ziegler, G.M. 1931. Thomas Say: early American naturalist. Charles C. Thomas.