Sunday: June 12, 2005
English Scrabble mostly proceeds by adding words that cross those already on the board. Of course, one can also extend a word at either or both ends, turning CAP into CAPE and then into ESCAPE or CAPED or CAPER and finally into ESCAPED or ESCAPER. Inflectional endings seem to provide a lot more opportunities for this sort of play in Latin Scrabble. For instance, if proper names are permitted, one can turn CICER (garbanzo bean) into nominative CICERO, then ablative CICERONE, then accusative CICERONEM. Or consider this sequence:
EGI (“I have done”)
LEGI (triple score: “I have read”, “to be read”, or “for a law”)
LEGIS (double score: “you read” or “of a law”)
LEGISTI (“you have read”)
LEGISTIS (“y’all have read”)
ELEGISTIS (“y’all have picked out”)
These possibilities also complicate one’s strategy. You should never leave the likelier possibilities open unless you have to. For instance, don’t turn CICER or CICERO into CICERONE if no one has played an M yet. There are five Ms in the Latin scrabble mix so if you don’t have one ready to use, chances are high that someone else does. Whoever plays it will get as much as you did plus a point — more if there is double or triple word score anywhere in the word, or a double or triple letter score under the M.
It is interesting to ask what would be the longest sequence of add-on words. A variation of this puzzle: what would be the longest sequence in which each word is exactly one letter longer than the previous word? Here’s my nomination (I assume a one-letter word could be used on the first turn, though I doubt anyone would ever do that):
A (double score, preposition and exclamation)
ABIT (3rd person singular)
ABITU (4th declension ablative)
ABITUR (3rd person singular, present indicative passive)
ABITURO or ABITURA or ABITURI (various forms of the future active participle)
ABITUROS or ABITURAS or ABITURIS (ditto)
I’m not sure that ABITUR actually occurs in Classical Latin, so it might be challenged. However, ITUR certainly occurs in Vergil (Aeneid VI), and ABITUR is used in modern German scholastic Latin. Similar sequences beginning with O and OB or E and EX could also be constructed, though OBITUR and EXITUR would be even more dubious than ABITUR. There could also be some dispute whether ABIT should count double, as present (short I) and perfect (long I, shortened form of abiit, often printed abît).
Note: That’s all I have to say for now about Latin Scrabble. I may turn this into a Word or PDF pamphlet, adding a chart of letter frequencies and values. Before doing that, I would appreciate comments from readers.
Saturday: June 11, 2005
A rule that increases the difficulty and interest of the game is to allow double or even triple score for homonyms, over and above any double or triple word scores marked on the board. This should not be permitted when the homonyms are different forms of the same word: it would be absurd to count PUERIS twice, once as dative and once as ablative, or OMNIBUS six times, for dative and ablative, masculine, feminine, and neuter. (Clever greedy people might even include the locative for a nonuple score, though actual locative uses of omnibus in literature would be very difficult to find, particularly when you need them in three different genders.) On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable, and challenging, to count LEGIS twice, once as genitive singular of lex, and once as the second person singular, present indicative active of lego, legere. Remember: quantity doesn’t matter. In this case, the player is, in effect, finding two different words to fit the same letters, and that ought to be worth something.
Some words could even count triple: EO is a verb (‘I go’), a pronoun (ablative singular masculine and neuter of is, ea, id), and an adverb (‘thither’). The best rule is that if they are words or forms of words listed separately in the dictionary (or in any one of the dictionaries present), they count as homonyms, but if they are separate forms of the same word, they do not. I would also count different forms of the same word if the quantity is the only difference: for example, LEGI would count triple as dative singular of lex, present passive infinitive of lego (with short E), and first person singular perfect active indicative of lego (with long E).
Why count homonyms? Because it challenges the players’ knowledge of Latin. Every student who has gotten beyond the first few chapters of the textbook knows that AMAS means ‘you love’, but those few who know that it also means ‘buckets for fire-fighting’ in the accusative, an alternative form of HAMAS, should be rewarded for their knowledge with extra points.
Thursday: June 9, 2005
Here are some tentative examples of possible rules and rule changes:
- To avoid arguments, it helps to have an authority. There are obviously no official Scrabble word-lists for Latin. For high school students and undergraduates, the teacher can be the all-powerful and unquestioned judge. He or she will (we hope) be too far ahead of the students to participate without some form of handicapping anyway. For teachers and graduate students, written authorities are best. I lean towards inclusiveness, and would allow any form of any word found in the Oxford Latin Dictionary or Lewis & Short. If you are playing in a well-stocked departmental library, you could also use DuCange and the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. Some cutthroat players might prefer to allow only words attested in classical Latin, or only words attested in Cicero, or only forms actually attested, so that a rare word only found once in the works of the Elder Pliny could only be used in the particular form he used. What about common words for which some forms are simply not attested, like sperum or spebus or most other 4th-declension plurals? This issue could easily get quite complicated, though the basic choices are obvious enough: allow any possible form, or just forms that were actually used.
- Middle and high school students should be allowed to consult a dictionary before making a move.
- Assimilated and unassimilated prefixes both count.
- Should Mediaeval forms such as lachrima (or even lachryma) count, or will only lacrima do? It depends on who is playing. In a gathering of Mediaevalists or palaeographers, surely the former. It hardly matters, as long as the decision is made before the game begins.
- Do proper names and Latinized Greek words count? Again, whether they do or not is less important than whether the decision is clear and made prior to beginning the game. As mentioned in part I, allowing proper names will make K, Y, and Z far easier to use. It also seems pedagogically sounder to widen the range of allowable words.
- What about enclitics? If LEX is on the board, can a player subsequently change it to LEXNE, LEXQUE, or LEXVE/LEXUE? Surely not: these are not single words. I would allow generalizing -que, as in quisque and ubique, but not copulative -que. This is the same as allowing words listed separately in the dictionary.
Wednesday: June 8, 2005
Getting hold of a sample of Latin text of any size is easy enough. I wanted 100,000 characters, so I copied three books from different websites into a single file. I believe they were Cicero’s 1st Catilinarian, Vergil’s Eclogues, and a book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but they could have been almost anything. (With a large enough sample, it shouldn’t make much difference which authors are chosen, so I didn’t write them down.)
I then tried to use my very rusty knowledge of C to put together a C++ program that would open the file, read it character by character, and compile totals for each letter. It was only after wasting many hours on this project that I realized it could be done very simply without any programming at all. The Microsoft Word search-and-replace function tells you how many replacements it has made. Therefore, to calculate letter frequencies for any text, all you need to do is:
- Copy it into Word.
- Remove all the punctuation and spaces by replacing them with nothing using the search-and-replace function.
- Trim the remaining alphabet soup to the appropriate size. Having precisely 100,000 characters, or some similar round number, will greatly simplify calculating the percentages for individual letters.
- Go through the alphabet, replacing A with nothing (or * or any nonalphabetic character), then B, C, D, and so on, jotting down the total number of replacements made each time.
Assuming a Scrabble set of 100 tiles in all, if you have (e.g.) 9,425 As and 1663 Bs in a 100,000-character text, you know that you need 9 A tiles and 2 B tiles.
This is not the ideal method for calculating letter frequencies. For Scrabble, the significant number is not the percentage of As or Bs in a Latin text, or in the sum of all Latin texts, but the percentage of As or Bs in the set containing every distinct form of every Latin word, with all the duplicates removed. For instance, when we consider the frequency of interrogatives, relatives, et, and –que in Latin, my method probably overstates the number of Qs, Us, and Es, since these common words will come up far more often than the average word. H is probably the most overrepresented letter, since very few different Latin words have an H in them, but those few include all the forms of hic, haec, hoc, which come up over and over. R and S are probably underrepresented, since the complete set of all possible distinct forms of all Latin words would have tens of thousands of each just in the verb endings. In the long run, a computer program with a very large database of Latin texts would provide much more accurate percentages. However, they would probably not be very different from mine, so my method makes a tolerable substitute. It is certainly much better than using the English percentages, as we would be doing if we played Latin Scrabble with an unaltered English Scrabble set.
It would be interesting to calculate the percentages of long and short vowels separately, but I see no way to do that without scanning a lot of hundred-year-old school texts in which all the long vowels are marked. Even then, it might not be easy to find texts that mark the hidden quantities, that is, the vowels that are always long by position, and are therefore often not marked long even when they are long by nature. (For scanning verse, the fact that the second A in amans and the E in dolens are long vowels is irrelevant, since the –ns will make the syllables containing them long in any case. Even texts that profess to mark the long vowels often do not bother with the hidden longs, as if scansion counted for everything and pronunciation for nothing.)
Note: Four more parts will follow: II. Calculating letter frequencies, III. Clarifying the rules, IV. A special rule to make things more interesting, V. Why Latin Scrabble is better than English Scrabble. The whole will then be put together into Word and PDF files for easy printing, but I want to allow comments first.
An Internet search suggests that people have occasionally used ordinary English Scrabble sets to play Latin Scrabble (91 hits for the phrase on Google), but that the experience is not always entirely satisfying. Fortunately, Latin uses the same alphabet as English, with a few subtractions — or rather, with few non-additions, since Latin came first. (Offhand, I can’t think of any modern European language that does not use accents, umlauts, slashes, or other special characters.) Unfortunately, the letter-mix for the two languages is quite different. For instance, Latin texts contain proportionally fewer Bs, Fs, and Gs and propertionally more Cs, Qs, and Us than English, so playing Latin Scrabble with an English Scrabble set can be frustrating. However, it’s easy enough to make Latin Scrabble sets out of English sets.
The first step is simple: buy two standard-model English-language Scrabble sets. ‘Classic Scrabble’ sets can be bought for anything from less than $8.00 to around $11.00 at WalMart. Even at list price ($12.99), two sets should be well within the means of graduate students, adjunct instructors, and Catholic high school teachers. (Bags of letters could once be ordered through the Hasbro website, but at $5.00 plus postage, the savings hardly justified the wait. In any case, I can no longer find the extra-letters page, so perhaps they are no longer sold separately.)
The second step is to add and subtract letters to make the proper mix. Start with one set, subtract letters that are commoner in English than in Latin, and use the second set to add those that are commoner in Latin than in English. Here is my recommendation:
Subtract: one D, one F, two Gs, one H, one L, and three Os, which are all less frequent in Latin than in English. Subtract the K, both Ys, and the Z, which are far too rare in Latin to have tiles to themselves. Subtract one W, keeping the other to use as an M. (More on these last two points below.) Don’t throw the subtracted letters away: you may need to replace lost letters. And be sure to mark which set is which: it can be quite time-consuming to try to figure out which set is the Latin set and which is the leftovers if you get them mixed up. If you are careful, you can always turn them back into a pair of English Scrabble sets for non-classical occasions, though it does take a while.
Add from the second set: two Cs, three Is, two Ms, one P, one Q, three Ss, and two Ts. Since U and V are interchangeable, add either all four of the Us from the second set, or two of the Us and both of the Vs. Latin Scrabble needs five Ms instead of two, so you also need to keep one of the Ws from either set and turn it upside down when it comes up in play. Obsessive-compulsive aesthetes with money to burn can always buy a third set for the M, and a fourth and fifth to secure a complete set of Vs, since Scrabble sets contain only capital letters, and V as a vowel (IVS, GAVDEO, SERVVS) looks much better than U as a consonant (UIS, UERGILI, SERUUS).
The main problem is what to do about K, Y, and Z. All three are found in Latin — Y and Z mostly in Greek borrowings — but are so very rare that keeping even one of each in the mix would provide horrible challenges to whoever draws them. One possible solution is to use one of the blanks that come with Scrabble for these three letters, and only these three, and make it worth 10 or more points. This works best if proper names are allowed: being able to play the various forms of Kaeso or Hyale or Zethus will make K, Y, and Z much more doable. Without proper names, K could only be used in KALENDAE, KALENDARUM, KALENDAS, or KALENDIS, all of which would be very difficult unless someone else has played the corresponding form of the gerundive ALENDUS. A better solution would be to keep both of the standard blanks in the letter mix as true wild-cards, with a value of 0, but to add a rule that if a blank is used to represent K, Y, or Z, it will be worth a lot of points. Since the three are not equally rare, I recommend 20 points for K, 10 for Y, and 15 for Z. No doubt practice will tell whether these numbers are too high or too low.
A few other letters have different values in Latin Scrabble: I recommend making V and M = 1, P = 2, G and Q = 4. The printable version of this essay will include a large-print chart to hang on the board so players don’t forget.
Next: How I calculated the letter mix. This may also interest those who wish to make Scrabble sets for other exotic languages (Etruscan? Sumerian? Elamite?).
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