In awe of Omniglot

Thursday, October 24th, 2002

There is an amazing site on the Web which, funnily enough, is run by a guy in Brighton. The site is called Omniglot, and it’s a guide to writing systems from around the world.

Ever since getting into calligraphy when I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by how words are written. As a teenager, I made up my own Runic alphabet and used it to write cryptic messages all over my school notebooks. Years later, I went through a phase of making fancy birthday cards for people by writing their names in an "illuminated" version of the Irish uncial alphabet. And my undying interest in Jewish mysticism stems in no small part from my fascination with the idea that letters and words themselves (in Hebrew in this case) are powerful enough to be the building blocks of all creation.

So, needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time at Omniglot.

I had a couple of different thoughts when I first trawled through the site. One was that looking at a completely unfamiliar alphabet like Bassa made me feel like I had some form of alexia. To see letters that are somehow recognizable as letters but are at the same time completely incomprehensible is both intriguing and disturbing.

I also realized that many of these "weird" alphabets are really no more weird than my own Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet seems so pedestrian compared to something as strange and beautiful as Burmese or Mongolian. But when you really think about a capital "R", for instance, or a small "g", they’re quite odd, unintuitive shapes to make on a piece of paper. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the poor old Latin alphabet.

And finally, looking at the Georgian alphabet reminded me of my own personal encounter with the Georgian language. When I was 15, I had the good fortune to go on a class trip to the Soviet Union. After spending time in Moscow, we took a rickety nighttime Aeroflot flight to Tbilisi, where we stayed for a few days.

Now, in Moscow, I had been surrounded by the Cyrillic alphabet, obviously. I couldn’t really read the Cyrillic alphabet at first, but it was very familiar-looking (thanks to movies and TV, I guess), and it was only a short while before I was able to start working out words.

But Georgian…well, Georgian was like nothing I had ever seen before. Ever. Anywhere. And as I walked through the streets of Tbilisi that first night, cold and tired and surrounded by this utterly alien, deeply cryptic writing, I felt more foreign and further away from home than I had ever felt before - and than I have ever felt since. Those strange, incomprehensible letters were frightening, and I think if I could have gone home in that moment, I would have.

As it is, I’m very glad I didn’t. Tbilisi was beautiful city, and the Georgians were some of the warmest, most generous people you could ever hope to meet. Their alphabet, like nearly all of the writing systems on Omniglot, is as impenetrable to me as ever - but maybe that’s why I find it all so fascinating in the first place.



Yeah, Omniglot is brilliant, thanks for reminding me; absolutely agree about Georgian, it’s gorgeous. And have you seen Oriyan (I think - from India)? Round and looping, a bit like Burmese. I don’t now if you’ve seen Katzner’s book, ‘Languages of the World’, it was that which inroduced me to all these amazing scripts. IIRC it claims that scripts like that avoided straight lines because of the materials they were scratched on - palm leaves etc.

I have a personal grudge about English, where we could so easily have had the signs for voiced and invoiced ‘th’, which Icelandic and Faroese still have, but for some ignorant and self-serving Norman scribes… :)


I seem to remember reading something about the curling scripts/palm leaves thing, too (it may well have been on Omniglot, actually). Assuming that Latin was generally etched into stone (and I am really just assuming that, I don’t know for sure), I guess it would make sense that the Latin alphabet would have so many straight lines. More’s the pity…

I also seem to recall that the letter ‘Y’ so often seen on Olde Worlde signs (like ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’) is actually a form of that symbol for ‘th’ as was used in Anglo-Saxon and Old English. I guess that symbol would be Eth, the voiced ‘th’ which on the Omniglot site looks more like a ‘d’ than a ‘y’. Yeah, it would be kind of nifty to still be able to use something like that. But then, I guess if we used it all the time, it wouldn’t be nifty any more. :-)


Well, we could, couldn’t we? They’re still there in the character set, even if unavailable on the keyboard (has sudden thought that keyboards in Iceland must look interesting). I wonder if this will work … Yeah, isn’t that great!!! :)


Hey, that’s pretty cool! Why didn’t I think of that before? This could revolutionize the entire Latin alphabet and the way we write. Good thinking!


I know, I only hope the future governments decide to reform english and consult someone who knows what their doing, then maybe we might see thorn, edh, yogh, wynn, and other letters that should never had been dropped from our language. Maybe then so many school children and foreign learners will never have to question the likes of cough, rough, eight, knight and so on….it’s a shame one of the most widely spoken languages happens to be one of the most corrupt….

Posted by Niall


To the person that said that the latin Alphabet is so pedestrian. Your Brain is much more pedestrian. To Knock the Latin Alphabet is something unheard of. You are one of the Kinds of people that like the Serpentine Alphabets like Arabic. Look at what the serpentine alphabets are doing today. Don’t knock the Latin Alphabet.

Posted by R. A. Baro


Wow, R.A. Baro, I never thought someone could make a racist remark about an *alphabet*. What a weird, weird world you live in.

Posted by Jessica


I agree with you R.A. Baro, They(Racists) can make trouble of all kind of things in anywhere. What a shame!

Posted by Red


Sorry-> not R.A. Baro— but Jessica WordRidden

Posted by Red



Posted by ROB BROWN


Wowzers people obcessed about language. I thought I was the only one. I have a preference to the Chinese alphabet. Primarily because the Latin alphabet took over the Vietnamese Chu Nom which was a combination of Chinese and Vietnamese Speech. But that’s on Omniglot, isn’t it. Found all you’s interesting.

Posted by Xanh(Not really)


wow people are alphabet crazy. i just use THE alphabet………… never learned any other ones………. i was looking for info on the Oriyan writing system but i guess i wont find it here. :( cya alphabet luvas!

Posted by JoJo~*~*LuVeR~*~*


I live for omniglot.

By the way, "Xanh," there is no such thing as the Chinese "Alphabet." Chinese is a pictographic/logographic system of writing, not a phonemic alphabet like Latin etc.

Posted by Jon Swift


For people in love with Omniglot… try out its another fun one, that traces the evolution of scripts.

For the person who thinks Latin is a Superior alphabet than Arabic… they are cousins… both spawns of the early Hebrew alphabets and Phonecian. And in fact, Arabic has retained more of the original sounds from the very FIRST alphabet which have been lost in modern Hebrew and totally corrupted in Latin. I am guessing that since you dont like loopy "serpintine" alphabets, you obviously never learned to write in CURSIVE. And BTW modern arabic is simply a cursive version of their original block style lettering used for stone-work.

Posted by Patrick Dempsey


That’s a great site, Patrick - thanks for pointing it out!

Posted by Jessica

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