Ben Zimmer sent me a link to The Great Language Game [archived], a creation of Lars Yencken, and as I told Ben, it is officially more fun than a barrel of monkeys. You hear an audio clip of a language being spoken, and you have to choose from a number of possible languages that rises from two to (at least) ten; you have three lives (after the third failed identification, game over); and you are not penalized for taking a long time or listening to the clip repeatedly (you get 50 points for each correct answer, no matter what). I coasted for the first six, and then hit my first “uh-oh, I have no idea” clip. One important thing to know is that always sometimes the same clip is used for a given language, so pay attention even if you’re at a loss as to what it is—after having missed Tigrinya the first time, I got it when it came up again because I recognized the clip. Also, it’s slow, at least on my computer; don’t keep hitting the button impatiently, just relax while it does its thing. My final score: 1300. Enjoy!


  1. I once heard a group of foreign tourists chatting on an Edinburgh street. “Where in Scandinavia do they come from?” I wondered. After listening intently for several minutes I realised that the answer was Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

  2. Which, I suppose, they would pronounce “Numlytoo.”

  3. Actually, I think I just had two different texts in Swahili…

  4. Yep and two different clips for Ukrainian.

  5. I don’ think that they do always use the same clip for the same language. I’ve heard at least two different Russian clips, and I’m fairly certain I’ve heard doubles of other languages as well.
    Also, giving you a vaguely Persian-sounding clip and then giving you options including Dari and Farsi is a real dick move (pardon my French… or maybe Tagalog…)

  6. “I realised that the answer was Newcastle-upon-Tyne.”
    You were right the first time. That area is in Denmark the way Maine is in Norfolk.

  7. … and two different clips for Dinkia which did me in.

  8. Ah, I shouldn’t have been so categorical; I’ll correct the post. And then I’ll give the game another go…

  9. Also, giving you a vaguely Persian-sounding clip and then giving you options including Dari and Farsi is a real dick move

    Worse than having to distinguish Bosnian and Serbian?

  10. Spamavit:
    The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Problems (DSM IV) defines premature ejaculation as a persistent or recurrent ejaculation with minimal sexual stimulation just before, on or shortly right after penetration and just before a person wishes.
    Actually, I think it’s defined as a patient who comes faster than his doctor.

  11. lukas,
    somewhat, yes: there you at least have a high change of encountering a word with one of the reflexes of jat (ě) based on which you can determine whether the dialect is ekavian (Serbian) or jekavian (Bosnian, at least theoretically). In one of the tests I had, the word “savet” came up. The ijekavian and ekavian form would have been “savjet”, so Serbian I clicked and it was the correct choice. The only difference between Farsi and Dari I can remember is the word final -e (Farsi) / -a (Dari) and to be honest, they both sound pretty much the same to me.

  12. Bulbul: Well, yeah, but there are Ijekavian speakers of Serbian, too. So Ekavian is diagnostic of Serbian (or Montenegrin), but Ijekavian is not.

  13. The one sample of Dari I got sounded enough like Persian that it had to be a variety of it, but not enough like Farsi to be Farsi, so it pretty much had to be Dari (since Tajik wasn’t on offer).

  14. John,
    very true, which is why my diagnostic approach is only applicable to a small set of situations (i.e. it is quite unlikely you will ever encounter ijekavian Serbian in a newscast).

  15. Bulbul: not even in Republika Srpska?

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