Latin Scrabble I: Introduction

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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