In praise of Omniglot

What, you may ask, is Omniglot?

Well, the name gives it away (or hints at it, at least). Latin omni- ‘all, every’ followed by Greek glot- ‘tongue, language’ tells you that it has something to do with every language.

And that is true—more or less. Maybe it’s not quite about all 7000 or so languages, but it’s trying hard: I have yet to find one that’s missing.

Omniglot is a beast with many heads. It’s a resource, and a podcast or two, and a blog, and a database, and an (in its own words) “online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages,” and more. This ensemble is a labor of love by the Welsh linguist/polyglot/musician, Simon Ager. In his own words:

I speak English, French, Welsh, Mandarin and Irish fluently, and German, Japanese, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Manx and Esperanto fairly well. I also have a basic knowledge of twenty or so other languages.

He’s way ahead of me!

My major use of Omniglot is that it’s the resource I turn to when I need to learn more about writing systems, the first topic on the webpage. To get some idea of how thorough the presentation of this topic is, just scan the list of subtopics:

Abjads | Alphabets | Abugidas | Syllabaries | Semanto-phonetic scripts | Undeciphered scripts | Alternative scripts | Constructed scripts | Fictional scripts | Magical scripts | Index (A-Z) | Index (by direction) | Index (by language) | What is writing? | Types of writing system | Differences between writing and speech | Language and Writing Statistics | Languages

You probably always wanted to know how alphabets differ from abjads and abugidas, and there you are with the first three subtopics! Or maybe you wanted to know which scripts are written from right to left; halfway through the list is the Index By Direction, where you not only learn about right-to-left scripts but also about vertical ones—both top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top! And, as you’ll see if you explore, you’ll find lots of other Big Ideas there. You can get lost for hours if you poke around, and that’s just the Writing Systems topic.

I mentioned above that Omniglot is also “a podcast or two.” The reason for the hedge is that the episodes alternate between “Adventures in Etymology” (in which you learn about the etymology of a particular word in depth) and “Omniglot News” (in which you learn about what’s new on the various Omniglot webpages and get to take a close-to-impossible quiz identifying a mystery language). My only complaint about the podcast is that many listeners are bound to be turned off by Ager’s slow, ultra-calm delivery. It’s a bit like Mr. Rogers on tranquilizers. I say “many listeners” advisedly, because I’m not one who is turned off, perhaps because I’ve learned a lot from a couple of excellent teachers who talk similarly. But I know that most people prefer more energy. YMMV.

Although I could go on and on exploring the rest of the website, I have to stop somewhere. Just give yourself an hour or two to explore the riches of Omniglot. You will inevitably learn something you never even knew you wanted to learn. Or try to find the answer to a particular question you have.

Before we go, though, as a math teacher I have to highlight a particular page, the one on Numbers in Various Languages. For instance, suppose you want to compare and contrast the names of the numbers in Ancient and Modern Greek, as I had to do in the pre-Internet days of 1966. If I had had access to Omniglot I would have easily found all the data I needed. Here are two clips, showing just 1–7 in Ancient and Modern Greek respectively:

If you looked carefully at the Ancient Greek, you may wonder about the Greek Numerals. Everyone learns about Roman Numerals in school—if for no other reason than to read Superb Owl numbers and creation dates on movies—but almost no one seems to learn Greek numerals. But if you look at the parenthesized representations in the Ancient Greek list above, you’ll see the Greek numerals; clearly each one is a Greek letter followed by a prime sign. Except…what’s up with 6? F isn’t a Greek letter! Actually, it’s ϝ, not F. I could explain that to you, but that would be cheating, so I am leaving it as an exercise for the reader.

Categories: Linguistics