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3 entries from June 2012


SCRABBLE® in German is no fun extremely challenging.

In English, we can add a sneaky "-s", or "-ed" to build on someone else's work, and cream the points off their letters.   Wordy types scowl when they learn that the game is not won by the player with the biggest vocabulary, but by the player with the most rat cunning. 

Scrabble auf deutschWhen you try the standard SCRABBLE® tricks in German, you come a cropper.  For example, to turn "stop" into "stopped", German turns halten into hielten.  Letters change in the middle; verbs and plurals are the biggest culprits.

Further, words in German simply need more characters.  Compare work and Arbeit, ham and Schinken, I and ich—the list never ends.  I sometimes write in English for translation into German. The rule of thumb is that the character count will go up by 15%, or more.

Maybe German SCRABBLE® would work better if the board were bigger, and the bag held more tiles.   It fascinated me to discover that until 1990, this was the case.   The letter-count stood nearly 20% higher than in the English version, at 119 tiles.   Players drew eight per turn, as opposed to seven in English. 

The makers throw in a few extra S's—seven, versus four in English.  We need them.  German crossword games substitute an SS for an ß, or Eszett.  You can't begin a word with an ß, and to use it would limit the word-crossing possibilities.  (Interestingly, the game designers deliberately limit the number of S's in English, lest point-stealing through guerilla plurals make the game too easy.)

The German edition holds half as many Y's, though.  The Ypsilon occurs rarely, mainly in foreign words.   One wonders if, statistically, the German game should have a Y at all.

Such issues would have entranced the inventor of SCRABBLE®, a detail-obsessed architect fascinated by structures and mathematical interdependencies.   Alfred Mosher Butts—surely Buttress would have been a better name for an architect, no?—studied the front page of the New York Times to work out which letters occured most frequently.   Amazingly, the distribution remains valid, in spite of our changes in speech.  

Mind you, English spelling never changes.  It already had fuck all to do with the way we speak when Butt invented his game in the 1930s, and we've made no progress since.   The useless "gh" construction persists.  "-mb" hangs off the ass of too many words.   And guessing how any given vowel might sound, is a crapshoot. 

Ed Rondthaler made letters his business for almost a century.  Here, he explains why we use them stupidly.

The inscruitable yin of English spelling complements the strict yang of the game.  It succeeds in spite of English spelling insanity.

We might ask if SCRABBLE® better suits languages which have no spelling at all—iconic languages, such as Japanese or Chinese. 

I have written about the time when I tried to teach my ever patient husband, whose native tongue is Japanese, how to play in English.  It was not a success. 

Sudoku shows that while number-based "crossword" games work across cultures, word-based games will not.  Chinese SCRABBLE® would require several thousand tiles, and sentences would intersect rather than words. 

In Japanese Scrabble, the tiles would need to take two different forms, for words and grammatical particles, some representing sounds and some representing more.   One wonders if Mattel (the licensees of the game in Asia) might not experiment with a Hiragana-only version.

But then, at least half of the tiles would need to say desu.  Scratch that idea.