Word Games.

A reader writes:

I play a lot of word games like Scrabble and crosswords, and I was wondering whether word games are more or less popular in other languages. This then led into speculating about what language characteristics suit particular sorts of games, and are there word games in other languages that don’t work in English?

I assume that language using Chinese characters obviously support some very different forms of games, but was also wondering about languages that are closer in form to English.

That seemed like an interesting question, so I’m putting it out there.


  1. When I was in high school, my friends and I invented a game that we called “Not Entirely Unconnected With”. Pencil and paper are all that is required. There is one defender and one or more opponents.

    The defender writes a word with vowels omitted in the middle of the paper, for example NN (“onion”). The opponents have to guess the word. If they fail, the defender writes a hint, also with no vowels. Then a hint to a hint, etc., the whole structured as a graph. The opponents have the right to demand more hints anywhere in the graph.

    The key to the game is the hints, which need to be both hard to guess and as unhelpful as possible, but when you finally get them, you have to admit they are valid. Hence the name of the game. I remember in the game we played on YK N (“Yoko Ono”), one of the hint chains was ← YLK (“yolk”) ← GG (“egg”).

    There’s no scoring, but the objective is to keep the round going for as long as possible, or until you fill up the sheet of paper.

    It strikes me that our game would be very unsatisfactory in some other languages. Hebrew, obviously. Asian languages like Mandarin where the structure of a word is very restricted, also the vowels have tones so there are many more possibilities. But I guess that it would probably work for most Indo-European languages.

    There’s no reason to restrict our game to just one language. If you wanted to allow TT as a clue for HD, you could play it that way. You would have to agree in advance on what languages were acceptable. Since we were high school classmates, we all studied the same languages and were at about the same level.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:


    I had a copy of this, but it’s one of my books that disappeared in the course of my migrations between continents.
    It’s pretty much what it suggests, though not a “puzzle”, but an inscription set up so as to be readable either horizontally or vertically.

    There are several acrostic Psalms, of course. To say nothing of Gematria …


    Then there is


    Most languages are unwritten, so the Scrabble/crossword thing is a non-starter. However, I think all languages have forms of verbal play of one kind or another. Hausa has sort-of pig-Latin variants that I remember reading about somewhere, but I can’t find a reference at present.

    Riddles are pretty popular in most cultures, of course; certainly in Africa, anyhow, where they work pretty much like the Old English type that Tolkien stole for his own nefarious purposes; the dividing line from proverbs is sometimes not all that clear, as African proverbs can be pretty Delphic too.
    A couple from Teach Yourself Hausa go

    Baba na ɗaki, gemunsa na waje.
    “Father is in the hut, but his beard is outside.”

    Ɗakin saurayi babu ƙofa.
    “The hut of a young man has no doorway.”

  3. Almost all English palindromes are painfully hokey, relying on devices like iimplausible scenarios and startling exclamations in odd places to maintain them. Unpointed Hebrew, because of its great flexibility with regard to vowels, lends itself more easily to pleasant and readable palindromes. Recently a book of palindromic poems came out, by Noam Dovev. Some are pretty good. He has a Hebrew palindrome blog, הִפּוּכוֹפֹּה hipuxopo, Dovev’s coinage for a palindrome, literally ‘its reverse [is] here’.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Even leaving aside scripts that permit vowel-omission, I think there may be other languages where palindromes would be much “easier” than in English, due to a comparative lack of (phonological) consonant clusters and (orthographic) digraphs that are impermissible and/or vanishingly rare if reversed. Of course if palindromes become *too* easy, there’s no sport to it, so I don’t know at what point along the spectrum of palindrome-friendly to palindrome-hostile languages the optimal sweet spot might be located.

  5. John Emerson says:

    Chinese was not requested, but anyway: Arthur Smith’s “Proverbs and Common Sayings from the Chinese” has 100 pp. on “Puns and other linguistic diversions”. I also have a book “Qishi Gongshang” , a book of “odd poems” which are basically word games.

    More later maybe if I get a chance. The Smith is definitely recommended.

  6. Chinese was requested: “but was also wondering about languages that are closer in form to English.” All languages welcome!

  7. I’ve heard about the Fictionary game recently; this game was allegedly invented by Russian Scrabble fans and is sometimes called Gamrul’ (a nonce word resembling the term “home rule”, gomrul’).

  8. The sadly defunct Tenser described a Japanese word game:

    Shiritori (尻取り, lit. ‘taking the bottom’) is a game in which players take turns saying words, each of which must begin with the kana character (mora) that ended the previous player’s word.

  9. I was also going to mention shiritori – and I have never seen the Kanji for it, so I’m very amused at the moment, thanks, Owlmirror!

    I guess I had vaguely imagined to myself (based on absolutely no evidence) that the name meant something about the verb “to know” (shiru, 知る) and a bird (tori, 鳥), not… taking a butt.

  10. I have played a similar game with children, where a player says a word and the next player has to say a word starting with the last letter of that word, in both German and Russian; a word once used must not be repeated. Sometimes we limit the words to a specific lexical field, e.g. animal names, to make it more difficult. One thing you notice playing this is how many German words end in “e” and “n”.

  11. Do they have a rule in shiritori that would prevent the players to end the game immediately by throwing in a word ending in ん?

  12. Garrigus Carraig says:

    A variant of shiritori was popular during my youth in Philadelphia around the time of the Reagan counterrevolution. We restricted words to place names and just called it “Geography”. Greenlandic places became increasingly familiar to avid players. I recently saw it featured in an episode of M*A*S*H.

  13. Nói lái is a linguistic device in which parts of two spoken words can be switched to construct two other implied words. It is used by a speaker to convey one message while actually saying another.
    Nói lái is an oral folk form, highly valued and used productively, widely, and creatively by Vietnamese speakers for centuries, long before literacy moved from the elite class and became widespread in the twentieth century.



  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    Do they have a rule in shiritori that would prevent the players to end the game immediately by throwing in a word ending in ん?

    Yes: a player who does that loses immediately.


  15. Is Контакт a qualifying word game? Probably a derivative of charade word-guessing games, but better adapted for a family car travel needs. Never heard of it in English but we play it in English too.
    Wikipedia seems to imply that it exist in Hebrew too

  16. I’d say according to the linked rules, it qualifies.

  17. Do they have a rule in shiritori that would prevent the players to end the game immediately by throwing in a word ending in ん?

    Technically, there’s no rule that prevents the player ending the game, just like there’s no rule in chess or any sport that a player or team can’t forfeit after their first move or play.

    But a forfeit is still a loss.

    If you follow the first link that I posted, it has not only an explanation of the rules, it has an example game from the anime series Planetes in transcribed and transliterated Japanese, and translation into English. The post author also points out something that strongly suggests that an additional game is being played by one of the players, that the other player is oblivious to.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Planetes is very good. Quite apart from its nerd-delighting technical detail, the relationship between Ai and Hachimaki is very well done (and I don’t think there’s really much doubt about Ai’s double game.) He’s a jerk, but you can still see what Ai sees in him. And she’s no fool.

    “Kessler Syndrome” (which actually figures in that very shiritori game) has been in the news lately.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t know if it has a name, but in this family we sometimes (usually while driving, or waiting somewhere) play a simple game where somebody says a word out loud, and then we take turns saying the next word until the sentence is complete. No winner or loser, except making unsuspected turns or coming up with a clever finish is appreciated.

  20. I wonder if certain languages lend themselves to crossword puzzles more than others.
    Like… I wonder if the average number of “intersections” in crosswords has a predictable correlation with the distribution of letters in each language. In that case, these should be unusually dense:


  21. A variation on Trond’s game is a common round on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

  22. While the Korean alphabet is alphabetic, the consonant and vowel signs are grouped together into syllabic blocks, which means that in terms of word games it functions more like a syllabary.

    Crosswords in Korean, called 십자말풀이 sipjamalpuri (십자 十字 sipja ‘cross’ + 말 mal ‘word’ + 풀이 puri ‘solution’), have a very different flavour because of this, as each word is rarely more than four syllables long and it is difficult to put together rectangular arrays where the words make sense. You can take a look at a typical example here.

    Similar to shiritori, Korean has 끝말잇기 kkeunmallitgi (끝 kkeut ‘end’ + 말 mal ‘word’ + 잇기 itgi ‘connecting’). Players take turns saying a word (usually restricted to nouns) that starts with the same written syllable as the one that ends the previous word.

    This can be quite tricky for Korean as there are plenty of syllables that appear at the end of common words but do not begin any words, such as 념 nyeom, 쁨 ppeum, or 탉 tak (< talk), from 양념 yangnyeom, 기쁨 gippeum, and 수탉 sutak respectively. A game of kkeunmallitgi usually doesn’t last long because of this; I imagine shiritori can go on for much longer.

    Standard Korean in South Korea has the 두음 법칙 頭音法則 dueum beopchik or the ‘initial sound rule’ which turns ㄹ r into ㄴ n and drops ㄹ r or ㄴ n before i or y in native and Sino-Korean words. So no native or Sino-Korean word starts with 라 ra or 니 ni for example. You could use recent loanwords like 라면 ramyeon (‘instant noodles’) or 니스 niseu (‘varnish’), but you have a much smaller pool of words to choose from. One could play a variation of the game that allows ignoring the initial sound rule, as they do in North Korea. In that case, you could say 념두 nyeomdu instead of the South Korean standard 염두 yeomdu for Sino-Korean 念頭 (‘mind’) whereas normally there are no words that start with 념 nyeom.

    There are plenty of possible variations depending on what kind of words you can allow (e.g. proper nouns), or putting restrictions on the number of syllables. One could also have a rule that in order to win, the player who proposed the final word has to give a valid next word that the next player was not able to find.

  23. One could also have a rule that in order to win, the player who proposed the final word has to give a valid next word that the next player was not able to find.

    I like that idea.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    Something rather like that is part of the mechanism of the game Botticelli:


  25. It’s not a language game, exactly, but on car trips my family used to play what one of the kids named “random rock-paper-scissors” or “RRPS.” The idea of the game was that you were not restricted to just rock, paper, and scissors. According to the rules we eventually settled on, we went around in a circle, from player to player, and each person named something that would oppose the thing named by the previous player. If another player requested, the active player would be required to explain how the opposition would work. Ideally, item n would be able to complete defeat item n – 1; however, all that was technically required was to prevent item n – 1 from defeating item n – 2. If the rest of the family was unsatisfied with the explanation, the player was eliminated.

    The things that were named ranged from extremely abstract (such as communism or independent filmmaking) to specific (Odin). The main rule was that no thing could be reused in a single game. However, we also discovered that there were some things that were simply unbeatable; certain characters (and it was always, so far as I can recall, characters) were so resourceful that we all agreed that we did not see how they could ever be defeated. Anybody who came up with such a character was considered to have won that game, but the character was banned from future use. So over time, we decided on a set of overpowered characters, which included Dr. Who, Superman, and MacGuyver.

  26. Presumably, Ragnarok defeats Odin. And who would defeat Ragnarok? How about Auðumbla, sending Scandinavian mythology on a loop, or perhaps a helix.

    (Anyone remember that weird comic where I think Thor met someone (was it Odin’s missing eyeball?), that told him that Ragnarok had already occurred to a previous instantiation of Asgard and the Aesir and so on, including a different Thor)

    Inevitably: Rock Paper Scissors Spock Lizard

  27. David Marjanović says:

    So over time, we decided on a set of overpowered characters, which included Dr. Who, Superman, and MacGuyver.

    What happened to kryptonite?

    (Always be yourself.
    Unless you can be Batman.
    Always be Batman.)

  28. @David Marjanović: Has kryptonite ever really defeated Superman?

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    It would have done so many times if it had not been for those meddling kids.

  30. Superman+lead armor > kryptonite

  31. One of the more popular word games on Wechat is a crossword puzzle-type setup of various chengyu, the four character sayings (the game is called 成语小秀才, “Little chengyu scholar”).

    Edited: I haven’t played it much, so I don’t know how difficult it gets. The beginning is very easy and is just involves filling in the blanks with provided characters.

    Further edit: Felt like I should mention some other word games I’ve encountered (not a native nor highly fluent Chinese speaker): guessing a word or individual character through riddles involving the components and doing chains of chengyu where the last character is the first character of the next one and so on. I think games that involve chaining in some aspect are pretty common and doable.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Lead defeats kryptonite, kryptonite defeats Superman, Superman lifts lead. Perfect.

  33. (Anyone remember that weird comic where I think Thor met someone (was it Odin’s missing eyeball?)

    I had to search for this, and sure enough:


    The eyeball is basically providing a recap of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

  34. I also stumbled on an old Language Log post about the Chinese government ruling out some kinds of wordplay. Examples of the sorts of wordplay used in the Chinese language are given in the post and comments.


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