International Scrabble: The size of the dictionary depends on how words get inflected.

A Non-French Speaker Won the French Language Scrabble Championship. How Is That Possible?

A Non-French Speaker Won the French Language Scrabble Championship. How Is That Possible?

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Aug. 5 2015 10:35 AM

A Non-French Speaker Won the French Language Scrabble Championship. How Is That Possible?

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New Zealand's Nigel Richards just won the Francophone Scrabble World Championships. He doesn't speak a word of French.

Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

While tiles clashed at the North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, Nevada, this week, the Scrabble world was still buzzing about a seemingly superhuman achievement at the French-language championship held a few weeks ago in Louvain, Belgium. It was there that the New Zealander Nigel Richards, the “Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” bested all his Francophone opponents. Except that Richards doesn’t actually speak French, and he only set about learning the French Scrabble dictionary nine weeks before the event.

That feat was so insane that Richards’ fellow Scrabblers are still trying to wrap their heads around it. Andrew Fisher, a top competitor from Australia, recently published a long Facebook note on the accomplishment, likening it to “Roger Federer deciding to take up badminton, and then winning the BWF world title a couple of months later.”

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How difficult a task is it to master a Scrabble dictionary in a foreign language? It depends on the size of the dictionary, of course. On FiveThirtyEight, Oliver Roeder surveyed Scrabble dictionaries in several different languages to see which would pose the biggest challenge to Richards:

Despite frequent claims that it has the largest vocabulary of any language, English is actually pretty easy to learn, or at least English Scrabble is. Most of the English word-game dictionaries have less than 200,000 words. French is certainly “tougher”—its Scrabble dictionary has double that, with about 386,000. Tougher still, though, are Spanish, Romanian and Italian. The latter two have lists cracking half a million words.

But hang on. While these foreign-language Scrabble dictionaries may indeed have larger totals of playable words compared with 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.

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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. (That is, assuming he paid any attention to morphological niceties. Scrabble observers say his study techniques rely more on brute-force memorization than consideration of linguistic nuances.) As Fisher pointed out in his Facebook note, the French lexicon, known as L’Officiel du jeu Scrabble may have more than 386,000 playable words, but it has fewer than 65,000 distinct root words. That’s about a 6-to-1 ratio, meaning that every root word has on average an additional five inflected forms. Verbs are the biggest headache—as anyone who had to conjugate them in high school French class can attest—since they can be inflected according to person, number, tense, aspect, and mood.

English, by contrast, has slightly more than one additional inflected form per root word, on average. The new fifth edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, which covers words up to eight letters long, has about 52,000 root words and 63,000 inflected forms. In tournament play, that two-to-eight-letter list is supplemented by words of up to 15 letters. Similarly, in English-language play beyond North America, the Collins Scrabble Word List, with word lengths up to 15 letters, has about 130,000 root words and 146,000 inflected forms.

So the basic Scrabble word stock of English is in fact much larger than French—just about twice as large, if you’re using the expansive Collins list. Once Richards got a handle on those French roots, the rest was all inflection.

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Other “synthetic” languages have even bigger multiplier effects. The Scrabble list used for Italian sits atop Roeder’s list with more than 661,000 words, largely on the strength of its seemingly endless verb conjugations. Take one verb early in the alphabet, abbacchiare, which can mean “to beat down with a pole (as fruit from a tree)” or “to buy cheaply.” Valid Scrabble words formed from this verb include:

ABBACCHI, ABBACCHIA, ABBACCHIAI, ABBACCHIAMENTI, ABBACCHIAMENTO, ABBACCHIAMMO, ABBACCHIAMO, ABBACCHIANDO, ABBACCHIANO, ABBACCHIANTE, ABBACCHIANTI, ABBACCHIARA, ABBACCHIARE, ABBACCHIARI, ABBACCHIARO, ABBACCHIARONO, ABBACCHIARSI, ABBACCHIASSE, ABBACCHIASSERO, ABBACCHIASSI, ABBACCHIASSIMO, ABBACCHIASTE, ABBACCHIASTI, ABBACCHIATA, ABBACCHIATE, ABBACCHIATI, ABBACCHIATO, ABBACCHIATURA, ABBACCHIATURE, ABBACCHIAVA, ABBACCHIAVAMO, ABBACCHIAVANO, ABBACCHIAVATE, ABBACCHIAVI, ABBACCHIAVO, ABBACCHIERA, ABBACCHIERAI, ABBACCHIERANNO, ABBACCHIEREBBE, ABBACCHIEREI, ABBACCHIEREMMO, ABBACCHIEREMO, ABBACCHIERESTE, ABBACCHIERESTI, ABBACCHIERETE, ABBACCHIERO, ABBACCHINO, ABBACCHIO

Many of these verb forms would never get used in actual Italian conversation (unless you’re spending a lot of time beating down fruit from trees), but that doesn’t make them any less playable.

It could be worse. Italian also allows so-called “clitic” pronouns to get suffixed to verbs. For instance, you could conceivably say Abbacchiala! for “Beat it down with a pole!”—combining the imperative abbacchia with the feminine accusative pronoun suffix -la. Fortunately, the Italian Scrabblers don’t include cliticized verbs in their word list. (One study found that from a list of 6,196 Italian verb stems you could generate 319,000 inflected forms and no fewer than 1,372,372 forms with clitics.)

Icelandic is even nuttier, morphologically speaking. Nouns routinely come in 15 different forms, adjectives in 12 forms, and verbs … well, it’s hard to keep track of how many. (For a taste, check out the paradigm for the verb ganga, meaning “to walk.”) The Icelandic Scrabble Association uses a word list based on a morphological database known as Beygingarlýsing íslensks nútímamáls (BIN to its friends). From a couple hundred thousand inflectable roots included in BIN, the Icelanders are able to spin out a whopping 2.3 million Scrabble words.

In fact, after Richards won the French championship, the Icelandic club threw down the gauntlet on Facebook. The French lexicon is “easy” compared with Icelandic’s 2.3 million words, they wrote, issuing a challenge to Richards: “Claim the Icelandic crown and prove to the world that you’re indisputably the greatest player of all times.” Richards demurred, as the Icelandic championship would conflict with the Anglophone world championship this fall in Perth, Australia. But hey, Richards is only 48, so he still has plenty of time to master the inflectional systems of the world’s languages.

Thanks to Merriam-Webster senior editor Robert Copeland for help with the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, David Sutton for help with the Collins Scrabble Word List, and Oxford University Press lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin for help with Icelandic.