Today, while hanging out with a few of my Japanese friends, I learned about a game called しりとり (shiritori), which is a type of word game where people say words, take the final kana (or syllable) and use that to find another word that begins with it. It was pretty difficult for me, since I have a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese words. So, that means if I say umi, the person after me has to say word that begins with mi. Obviously, you have to know the kana spelling of a word in order to play this game properly. The catch is that you cannot play words that end in the kana ん (n), since no words in Japanese end with this kana. On top of that, you can only play common nouns, so no names of places or people. If you are in a position where you have no choice but to play a word that ends in ん, then you lose. A similar game called “word chain” exists in English, though this version has way fewer way to ways to lose, since very few letters in English are like ん for the purposes of the game.
Now, what this made me think about is the fact that the idea of “spelling” is an almost unique thing to English, since nearly all letters have more than one possible pronunciation that overlaps with other letters. In Spanish and Italian, for example, spelling is fundamentally unimportant, since every letter has a one pronunciation and one only, and all words are spelled exactly the way they sound. French could conceivably have spelling-based games, since more letters are ambiguous the way English is. Even if the letter or symbol of a language has multiple pronunciations depending on the position of it in a word, spelling is insignificant so long as there no overlaps with other letters. For example, the letter “f” and the combination “ph” make the same sound, but are used to spell things in different ways. “Ph” is used in almost exclusively words of Greek origin, like “philosophy” or “philanthropy”, and “f” for everything else. But for the unlearned player of word chain, these words have ambiguous spellings.
Another thing that this pointed out to me is that in many languages, this game can end very quickly. For example, in Italian, nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that significantly shrinks the bank of words you can use for the game. Spanish has a similar problem, since relatively few words end in consonants other than n and s. In many (if not all0 Indian languages, this game is not feasible, at least if it’s played like shiritori. Using the final syllable is very difficult, since even though Indian languages use abugidas, where each letter is almost always syllable unto itself. The problems come up when you have a syllable that has more than one consonant in it. For example, if I were to use the Kannada word ಮಿತ್ರ (mitra), the next word has to begin with ತ್ರ (tra), of which there are very few. It’s even worse if you play a word that ends in the sound ಋ (ṛ), since there are very, very few words that actually start with this letter. It’s just that the writing system is not suited for such games. For what might be obvious reasons, Chinese languages cannot play this game, since hanzi don’t work that way. Using radicals to determine the next word requires too much knowledge on the part of the player. Also, pinyin finals can’t always start a word, and tones restrict syllables even more.
Some of the languages that I think are suitable for this game (using either the Japanese or English version of the rules) include Greek, Russian, Korean, possibly Vietnamese, maybe Irish, and Catalan. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. One of the keys to this game is that there has to be a letter or symbol that little to no words can start with.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and I highly suggest playing it for practice in the languages mentioned. Please remember to share this wherever you think people will be interested!