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Omniglot - a potted history

Being the tale of how Omniglot came into being, what my work on it involves, and how I make a living from it.

In the beginning ...

Omniglot was started as a hobby in 1998 by me, Simon Ager. Initially it was part of a site promoting a web design and translation business I tried to set up - I'd taught myself web design while working for the British Council in Taiwan between 1994 and 1998, and did some translation and interpreting between Chinese and English there. So I thought I could start my own business doing that. Unfortunately that didn't work out, but I added details of the languages I knew at the time to the website, and Omniglot grew from there. I was inspired to add details of different alphabets and writing systems by various websites and books I found.

I coined the name Omniglot in 1998. Here's a definition:

Omniglot ('ɒmnɪˌglɒt) noun
1. having a command of all languages
2. written in, composed of, or containing all languages
3. a person with a command of all languages
4. a book containing several versions of the same text written in all languages
5. a mixture or confusion of languages
[from Latin omnis (all) + Greek γλωσσα (glossa) - tongue/language]
Adapted from the definition of polyglot in Collins English Dictionary

After about a year I found a job building multilingual websites for Study Group in Brighton, where I worked until 2008. During that time I continued to maintain and develop Omniglot in my spare time.

Income starts to trickle in

In 2003 I discovered that I could get a commission on sales if I put Amazon affliate links on my site, so I set up a book store containing language learning materials and related books. Then I signed up for various other affiliate programs and for Google Adsense, and advertisers started approaching me asking to place paid links on the site. I also get many link exchange requests, and if they are from a commerical organisation that offers language-related products or services, I try to persuade them to pay for links. I haven't actively sought advertising, or spent anything on marketing, apart from printing and distributing business cards. Income from Omniglot started to trickle in at first, and gradually increased as more and more people discovered the site.

Time for something different

After being made redundant from my job in Brighton in 2008, I applied for a job with another company in Brighton, a language-travel agency, and ended up doing some freelance writing for their website. I also picked up some freelance writing work for another website, and was offered a job as a publications manager for a company in Shanghai, which I turned down as I didn't want to work in China. With the money from the freelance jobs and from Omniglot I was able to make ends meet, though not really in Brighton, which is quite an expensive place to live in.

But what?

I'd been thinking about alternatives for quite a while and had considered joining a circus, or training as a teacher or as a speech and language therapist. It was the latter path that appealed to me most, and I worked out that I could do an MA in linguistics first, then do an MSc Speech and Language Therapy. I chose to study linguistics at Bangor University because the course sounded interesting, because the cost of living is quite a bit lower than in Brighton, and because I wanted to be in a Welsh-speaking environment - after many years of intending to learn Welsh, I'd finally got round to it while in Brighton. Before leaving Brighton I had Omniglot registered as a company (Omniglot Ltd), to make things official, and found an accountant.

Life as a student

I enjoyed my time as a student and studied some interesting and useful things, including phonetics and phonology, pragmatics and semantics, sociolinguistics and language disorders. For my dissertation I wrote about the decline and revival of Manx Gaelic, and compared it to other endangered/revived languages, such as Cornish, Irish, Basque, Maori and Native American languages. This also inspired me to learn more Manx and to make regular visits to the Isle of Man. While studying I kept Omniglot going, though didn't always have as much time as I would have liked to work on it.

And then ...?

By the time I finished my MA I was making a good living from Omniglot and didn't need a 'proper' job. So I decided to stay in Bangor and have been there ever since. My income currently comes mainly from Google AdSense ads, which pay a small amount for every click, and from affiliate commissions, and also from paid links which pay a fixed amount each month, and the occasional donation. So my income depends to some extent on the number of people visiting the site.

Where does all your traffic come from?

Visitor numbers have built up organically over many years. They reached 100,000 a month in 2004. Since March 2011 they have been over a million a month, and since October 2015 they have been over 2 milllion a month. After launching the site I registered it with all major search engines, and I make sure pages have relevant meta tags (title, description, etc). Apart from that, my main marketing 'strategy' is telling people I meet about the site and handing out business cards. People can also find out about the site via various offshoots of Omniglot (see below). I do my best to keep the site up-to-date and make regular corrections and improvements, and add new pages every week.

See Omniglot visitor stats

What do you actually do?

I spend my time adding new material and improving existing content, answering questions from visitors to the site, and also writing blog posts. As they involve doing things I enjoy and find interesting, they don't feel like work, and I can choose when and where to work, and what to do. I generally work on Omniglot in the mornings, and maybe for an hour or two in the afternoons or evenings, and spend the rest of my time doing things like reading, learning and using my languages, playing musical instruments, singing and writing songs and tunes, and practicing my juggling and other circus skills. I work seven days a week, and keep things ticking over even when on holiday, but when the weather is particularly good and I might go out somewhere for the day to enjoy it.

Since 2014 I have particpated in a number of polyglot events, including the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, the Polyglot Conferences in Novi Sad in Serbia and in New York, and the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal. I have given talks at these events on subjects such as language death and revival, the origins of writing, Manx, Welsh, and the origins of language. These events provide opportunities to meet other language enthusiasts, to practice languages and to see different parts of the world, and I thoroughly enjoy them.

Friends sometimes ask me for advice on learning languages, setting up websites and web-based businesses, and on how to monetize existing websites. I do my best to help them.

Offshoots of Omniglot include:

About this site | Omniglot - a potted history | About me | My language learning adventures | My singing adventures | My songs | My tunes | My musical adventures | My juggling adventures

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