Blog Excerpts

How Hard is it to Conquer Scrabble in Another Language?

The only thing crazier than Scrabble mega-champion Nigel Richards, who competes in English, setting out to win his latest championship in French? The fact that he pulled it off.

Richards' achievement stunned language analysts and the entire Scrabble community, who were quick to point out that Richards didn't even begin studying the French Scrabble dictionary until nine weeks before the tournament.

Top Scrabble competitor Andrew Fisher likened Richard's achievement it to “Roger Federer deciding to take up badminton, and then winning the BWF world title a couple of months later," while Five Thirty Eight's Oliver Roeder compared Scrabble dictionaries across languages to demonstrate that learning all the French Scrabble words (386,000) was even harder than a French player's learning Scrabble words in English (about 200,000); he also pointed out that Romanian and Italian, at 500,000+ words each, would be the hardest of all.

Now, our own Ben Zimmer, writing for Slate, adds to Roeder's analysis, explaining that "while these foreign-language Scrabble dictionaries may indeed have larger totals of playable words compared to English, they only reach those gaudy numbers because of how basic 'root' words get inflected in those languages." 

Let’s first consider English. On the linguistic spectrum from “analytic” to “synthetic,” English is more analytic than many other European languages, meaning that its morphology isn’t as reliant on inflection. We can make a noun plural, typically by adding “-s.” We can mark the tense of a verb by adding “-s,” “-ed,” or “-ing” (except for irregular verbs, where the inflection is trickier). And some adjectives (mostly consisting of one or two syllables) have comparative and superlative forms marked with “-er” and “-est” respectively.

That’s about it when it comes to English inflection, though. (We also form adverbs out of adjectives by adding “-ly,” but linguists treat that as morphological derivation instead of inflection, since it changes the word’s part of speech, unlike how we mark nouns for number or verbs for tense.)

When Nigel Richards was conquering the French Scrabble dictionary, he had to pay a lot more attention to inflection.

Find out how the role of inflection would affect would-be Scrabble champions around the world here.

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