Omniglot Is Your Guide To Written Languages

By: Charles Bowen

Almost always when we refer to “foreign languages,” we’re talking about how they sound. It’s how we’ve been taught languages for all our lives — conversational French, Spanish, Russian, German, English.

But of course, nearly all languages also are visual, and writing systems — those more or less permanent marks that people use to represent their utterances — vary greatly in the nations around the world. If someone appeared in your newsroom with a scrap of paper containing strange-looking writing, would anybody be able to identify it as Hebrew script or Russian Cyrillic? If somebody were doing a story about Arabic families in your community, couldn’t you add depth to the piece with a little understanding about the origin of Farsi, spoken and written by some 31 million people around the world? Wouldn’t a story about Native Americans be nicely enhanced with a sidebar on Cherokee syllabary, the written system that some believe was invited by Chief Sequoyah and introduced in the early 19th century?

These and dozens of other language-related stories are preserved in a fascinating Web site called “Omniglot, A Guide to Writing Systems.” To check it out, visit, where a nicely concise introductory page provides an outline of the material, starting with an article on “What is a writing system?”

The site covers more than 200 different alphabets, syllabaries, and other writing systems, including a few you will find nowhere else, such as “languages” created for novels, movies, and television shows. Along the bottom of the screen is a navigation bar to additional options, including news, links, books, and a bibliography of resources that cover writing systems in general.

For journalists, perhaps the most useful option is the introductory screen’s link to an alphabetized list of writing systems ranging from Abkhaz, Ahom, Akkadian, and Albanian to Welsh, Xixia, Yiddish, and Zhuyin fuhao. Click on any of the topics to reach a screen that provides a detailed history of that writing system’s origin with additional history.

For example, in the section on Icelandic, the report begins: “The first permanent settlement in Iceland was established by Vikings for Norway and Celts from the British Isles in 870 AD. The main language of the settlers was Old Norse or the Dnsk tunga (Danish tongue)… Icelandic is a Nordic language with about 250,000 speakers in Iceland, Canada and the USA. Icelandic is the closest of the modern Nordic languages to Old Norse and Icelanders are able to read the Old Norse sagas without too much difficulty.” The report then provides a guide to pronunciation, with notes on vowels, diphthongs, and consonants, samples of text, and links to other sites related to the language. Researchers also should not miss the section at the bottom of the report, which lists other languages written with similar systems.

Other considerations for using Omniglot in your writing and editing:

1. If you decide to write about Omniglot in your news columns or an Internet-oriented feature, you might want to note that the service has several just-for-fun options. For instance, click “Links” at the bottom of any page to reach miscellaneous links, one of which is “Your name in…”. This connects to a variety of sites that lets you enter a name and see its translation into Chinese, Hawaiian, hieroglyphs, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Runes, and other writing systems.

2. The “Links” section also points the way to assorted translation services online, dictionaries, search engines, and relevant computer software.

3. The site is operated by Simon Ager from his residence in Brighton, England. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has mastered the basics of Taiwanese, Cantonese, and Korean. In addition to French and German, which he learned in high school, he also has taught himself Spanish, Italian, Esperanto, and Welsh and has acquired a working knowledge of Latin, Hungarian, Turkish, Scottish Gaelic, and Arabic. He is currently learning Portuguese.

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