It only took two days for Louan Bengmah’s French-language version of the viral Wordle game to run into trouble. His online dictionary threw up “slush”, Québécois slang that was essentially an English word co-opted in North America.
French players hoping to join the hundreds of thousands of English speakers cluttering up social media with boastful grids showing how quickly they had guessed a mystery word, were frustrated.
“I got a lot of criticism, and I understand why, because it wasn’t really French,” he said ruefully. He has since combed the wordbank used for his game to weed out similar loan words from other languages.
Despite these teething problems, his program has taken off – one of dozens of Wordle copies around the world drawing in non-English-speaking audiences that may soon rival the millions playing the original game.
There are few languages in the world, dead or alive, that don’t seem to have at least an amateur Wordle clone. The game’s relative simplicity – just one five-letter word a day, and six chances to guess it – make it relatively easy to create similar programs from scratch, helping drive the global spread of the craze.
A “Wordles of the World” page on the website GitHub lists over 350 entries. Some are English-language versions like a Harry Potter-focused “wizarding wordle” and the self-explanatory Sweardle (swear words), but over 100 are in other languages, from Somali to Icelandic, Hindi to Hebrew.
A few have become juggernauts in their own right, like the Portuguese version Termo. “I worked on it for a week or so – I did not expect it to go the way it did,” said its creator Fernando Serboncini, 40, who now has 400,000 users but makes no money from the game.
Others remain a bit more niche. Old Norse was spoken in the late medieval period in Iceland and Norway, surviving only in written form after the 16th century, but it too has a Wordle, created by Tarrin Jon Wills, a dictionary editor. It has been wildly successful by the standards of a language that only a few thousand people read regularly. Since he put it up two weeks ago, visitor numbers to the dictionary site have doubled and there are a couple of hundred regular players.
“Part of it is just a game, but part of it is a way of seeing if we can get people to engage with the dictionary and the project that we’re working on. And that’s worked out quite well,” Wills said.
Linguistic differences mean adaptation to other languages can be challenging, and require major changes.
In China, words are formed from characters rather than the letters of an alphabet. Li Zhong, a programmer living in the historic city of Hangzhou, wanted to create a version for Chinese players. It took him a few days chatting with his sister to think about how to adapt a game based on guessing letters. Rather than words, his game throws up a kind of Chinese idiom known as chengyu, always composed of four characters, and dotted through daily speech. It now has over 70,000 users, the majority in Singapore. “The success of Wordle shows that not everything has to be an app, and you don’t always need a big company to create a product that really takes off,” he said.
The New York Times bought the rights to the original Wordle last month, but declined to comment on whether it would seek to crack down on clones in other languages.
Lawyers say it might struggle to push them offline. Depending on local copyright laws, it might at best be able to lean on imitators to change their colour scheme and layout away from Wordle’s green, grey and yellow grid.
“Generally speaking, copyright does not protect ideas, only specific expressions of those ideas,” said Kathy Berry, an intellectual property lawyer at Linklaters. That would cover the code and graphics of a game like Wordle, but not the underlying idea.
Wordle’s simplicity, which is a large part of its appeal, might also make it harder to chase copycats, because its format echoes ones used by many other games and gameshows in the past.
Awais Athar, a computer scientist from Cambridge, created an Urdu language version three weeks ago – Urdle. He decided to make the words shorter and add an extra guess, to reflect a different linguistic structure.
“A four-letter Urdu word can have as much phonetic information as a seven-lettered word in English,” he said. “Decreasing the word length made sense from the start to increase playability without making it too challenging.”
Like other creators of Wordle in different languages, he combines experience of programming with a love of word games, and was initially drawn in to playing the English-language version before deciding to launch his own three weeks ago.
He’s hopeful the New York Times won’t try to crush the global Wordle movement. “I hope they don’t shut adaptations down,” he said. “[It seems from media reports] their acquisition aims to introduce more word games to existing Wordle players, and I am all for it. Word games make people happy and we should spread the joy as much as possible!”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010