Sat. May 21st, 2022

This story was first published on The Conversation.

Wordle is a fast English word game developed by software engineer Josh Wardle, as a unique gift for his partner, released in October 2021.

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The game, where players guess a five-letter word through linguistic endings, became an unlikely success, suggesting a change in how we communicate – both in terms of how we socialize and in our relationship to language.

The popularity of Wordle

Wordle has nearly 3 million players worldwide, and versions of it appear in other languages.

People love to talk about it – the number of Wordle tweets increases by an average of 26 percent a day – even when they hate playing it (a significant number of Wordle tweets are complaints, usually about the volume or complacency of Wordle tweets).

Because the game allows you to share your result without spoilers, it has inspired tough competition where social media is flooded with results, especially high scores.

In fact, NBC recently assured us that being “bad” at Wordle does not make you “stupid.”

This is a confusing idea from a linguistic point of view: Solving the riddle with fewer guesses requires more luck – not more skill.

How to play Wordle

Wordle is often compared to crossword puzzles, but the mental process of solving is closer to code-breaking.

Players are able to narrow down the possibilities by calculating the probability of different letter combinations.

If your first guess gave e.g. two letters, both yellow, you can make a qualified guess about the most likely locations for these letters in English words.

Since the game is based on five-letter words, the words almost always involve consonant clusters. These are typically quite specific to the individual languages. In English, “spl” and “spr” are e.g. common, but “slr” or “prl” are impossible.

But players also need to be flexible enough not to rule out less likely combinations altogether – and to keep them in mind while playing.

People love to talk about it, even when they hate playing it.  So why are we all obsessed with Wordle?
People love to talk about it, even when they hate playing it. So why are we all obsessed with Wordle? Credit:

The difficulty level of each puzzle depends on the relationship between the solution and the player’s first guess.

Much of this is luck, but you can improve your chances statistically by using frequency analysis, a cryptolinguistic technique based on which letters are most common.

I use “share” as my first guess because it includes the two most common vowels, “s”, which is the third most common letter and the most common last letter in English words, while “h” and “r” are common individually and even more commonly in consonant clusters, so that their presence or absence instantly knocks out a number of possibilities.

But I admire people who play with less strategy.

Many people guess on whim.

Once you get past your first guess, players use their knowledge of spelling conventions and sound patterns in English to solve the word – another linguistic technique used for code-breaking.

After all, some of the most successful code-breakers of the pre-computer age were linguists, precisely because of this skill.

John Chadwick, who is famous among academics for his role in deciphering the ancient script known as Linear B, was also involved in cracking the most famous WWII code, Enigma.


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