A look back at Wordle

In January 2022, a game took the Internet by storm. In a burst of popularity, millions have taken to solve daily challenges, with a simple objective — to guess the five letter word of the day within six guesses. Although originally released in English, this game has since been released in other languages, but ultimately preserving the same objective. Hilariously, parodies of Wordle have popped up too, from Letterle, where players just need to guess the letter of the day, and Bytle, where players make guesses on a number in base-10, but correct binary digits were shown.

Saying that Wordle was a worldwide phenomenon would be an understatement. So, why not let us revisit this and check back on it six months later, and see what kind of strategies this game has spurred, from academics, to players like you and I.

Many have likened this word game with mastermind, but there is so much more than that. In language, some letters cannot exist next to others, while other letters tend to be found more often with each other. A linguistics expert suggested a starting word of “arose”, which was proposed as the word most likely to get some initial hits or near-hits, as this word has five of the most-used letters in the English language.

Computer scientists, however, proposed another word to start off with. Using this concept known as information theory, one could use the word “crane” to open, and given the distribution of grey, yellow, and green tiles, they could further narrow down the possibilities with more specific words.

However, this method hinges on some assumptions, one being that the player knows the full list of Wordle words.While there are many thousands of words containing five letters in the English language, only slightly more than 2,300 words are in Wordle’s solution set, alongside thousands more words that are in the Wordle dictionary, but will never become Wordle’s words of the day.

So with that being rather briefly said, I would want to share my strategy on guessing Wordle words!

Some letters can be found together more often that others. This is not just limited to the “qu” combination, but also consonant clusters like “sh”, “st”, and “ph”. Knowing which consonant clusters could potentially exist in five-letter words could help narrow down the guesses.

Other things to note are rather common patterns in English word formation. Things like the silent “e”, the combination “ck”, and “-oise”, “-ouse”, and “-oice” combinations could help further narrow down the possibilities.

That being said, what is my first guess? I do not have a fully concrete starting guess, but it goes along the line of using five unique letters, with the most commonly-used letters in the alphabet. This can range from “earns”, “arise”, and “shine”, to slightly less conventionally used ones like “noise”, “mouse”, and “route”. I believe the key here is to use the clues generated to not only affirm, but also to eliminate, since it helps zero out possibilities that contain the letters that are greyed out in the starting guess.

The one thing that consistently trips me up are the cases where letters are included twice in the word. Many of these follow the pattern “-lly”, “-ppy”, “-tty”, “-nny”, or in the worst of cases, “-zzy” (I think “jazzy” was a Wordle word before). These patterns still only account for a small proportion of words, but I think if cases allow, one could sneak in a “-y” word to confirm its presence, or absence.

Many players I know tend to max out the vowels in the first two guesses, which is quite normal. But what happens when the word has no vowels? Well, in the English language, there are some couple dozen or so words without any vowels, and most, if not, all of them contain the letter “y”. Using what one knows from the initial guess, they could eliminate the words that contain greyed-out consonants in the starting guesses, and work their way from there given the position of green letters (if any), or eliminate positions for the yellow letters (if any). Among these, “dryly” would be among the most difficult to guess given the use of “y” twice in the word, without any vowels.

Other proposed hardest words in Wordle are “queue”, and “mamma”, and rightfully so. One is rather unlikely to use words like “lemma” or “gamma” as a guess, but using “mummy” would pose a risk since that means only three unique letters could be used in the guess, something rather suboptimal if only eliminative information was given. “Queue”, on the other hand, is interesting. It could be relatively easily guessed if the starting guess contained the letters “u” and “e”, but how likely is one going to go straight to guess the “qu-” combination? While only one five-letter word ending in “ue” begins with “q”, I do not think this would be as easy to narrow down.

I took this knowledge of what letters could be found more with other certain letters than others to attempt Wordle in German. Here, the eszett is likely typed as “ss”, umlauts could potentially be written as “ae”, “oe” and “ue”, leaving potential for certain four, or even three-letter words being Wordle words (think “süß”, which would be typed as “suess” in Wordle). However, another German Wordle did not include eszetts nor umlauts, limiting the word pool which could be used as guesses.

German verbs typically end in “-en” for the infinitive, opening up several possibilities to be used as starting guesses. The letter “c” would typically be found together with other letters, as combinations like “sch”, ch”, or “ck”. German diphthongs include “ai”, “ei”, “ie”, “au”, and “eu” (and if umlauts are included, “Γ€u”, written as “aeu”), while triphthongs are rather limited to “jau” and “jei” for five-letter words.

My opening guess at first was a verb called “sagen” (to say). It contains pretty much what one could expect for an initial guess, some of the most commonly used letters in German (maybe except “g”). But over time, I watched this change to the word “stein” (stone), which could help check for the presence or absence of certain consonant clusters or consonant combinations.

I am still learning German, yet, this game has opened up a lot of vocabulary for me to learn. Not only has this game taught me about syllable formation and orthography in German, but also new words which I have never encountered before. I think this was an unintended by-product of attempting a word game in a language I was still learning, but hey, it helps.

Looking back at this, it is quite cool to learn about how each language is written, and how these rules, combined with the limitations of the game itself, could come together to create a mentally engaging experience. Within its simplicity in design, really comes the rather complex details or intricacies when one starts looking a bit deeper. Computer scientist, linguist, or normal players like you and I, we all have different methods and rationale of deriving the word of the day. What are your strategies when playing Wordle? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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