Fans of Wordle, the viral online word game (recently acquired by the New York Times) that gives players six tries to come up with a five-letter word each day, probably expected the crop of imitations that followed the game’s meteoric rise to fame. True lovers of the game can now play Dordle, which requires guessing two words at once; Quordle, four words at once; and Nerdle, which is Wordle with math. There’s even a Taylor Swift version. Fewer Wordle fans may have seen the launch of Pali Wordle coming. But thanks to the Thailand-based American monk Khemarato Bhikkhu, Pali Wordle is real, and in less than a week since its release, already dozens of people are playing it. 

Tricycle connected with Khemarato Bhikkhu to ask him about developing the game, including how he handles diacritical marks and the challenges of thinking about a Buddhist puzzle.

Why did you develop Pali Wordle?

I thought it might be a good way to familiarize myself with the Pali dictionary.

Did you intend to build this as an educational device for people learning Pali, or for people interested in Buddhism generally?

It’s for people who have studied a bit of Pali, for sure. The rest of www.buddhistuniversity.net is for people interested in Buddhism more generally. [The Open Buddhist University is a free, digital education resource run by Khemarato Bhikkhu.]

Where do you draw your word lists from?

I used the excellent, open source data from SuttaCentral.net which you can find on GitHub. People may think that Sutta Central is just a place to read the suttas, but it is also a place to write your own translations (via [translation app] Bilara) or to collect and find open access metadata, such as the list of parallels or, of course, the Pali dictionaries. Many scholars are already doing cool things with the data (e.g. BuddhaNexus, [a digital resource for Buddhist texts]) and hopefully Pali Wordle will inspire more!

How do you handle diacritical marks?

Just type a letter, followed by a punctuation mark to write an accented letter. So, to write “ā,” type “a-” (or “a” followed by a hyphen). 

I’m a bit proud of how it handles ṇ versus ṅ: just type “n .” and it will write ṇ. If it’s followed by a g or k, the ṇ will turn into an ṅ automatically.

I also make sure to count “th,” “bh,” etc as one letter, because in all Asian scripts, the aspirated consonants are a single letter. It’s just a quirk of the Romanization that these letters happened to be represented by two glyphs. I believe in the International Phonetic Alphabet they even use a superscript h to make it clear that the aspiration is part of the letter.

But for matching, it would be too difficult if the game considered t, th, ṭ, and ṭh as all different letters. So I decided that it would give “yellow” matches for any form of the letter, while still requiring the right form for a perfect match. This achieved good accuracy without being too difficult, but it did necessitate adding a new color, blue, for “right spot, wrong form” matches.

How many people are playing each day?

A few dozen people, mostly from the United States.

Do you have more Pali word games planned?

Not at this time.

What are the challenges of thinking about a Buddhist puzzle?

For a puzzle to be good, I think it should be authentic. Ideally, the structure of the puzzle itself teaches you something about how to think about the topic.

For Pali Wordle, being a language game, it’s given me a greater appreciation for the Pali language as such. It’s easy enough to learn some Buddhist jargon and memorize a few suttas and think you know Pali, but there’s a lot more to fluency than that, and having to flip through the dictionary to find five-letter words really reinforced for me how much more I have to learn!

With more suttas and Buddhist texts in general being interacted with online, such as in your game, what do you think is changing about people’s relationship to Buddhism? Or canonical texts?

Well, more people are reading the suttas (and in better translations) now than ever before—certainly in the last thousand years—and I think that’s wonderful.

We’re starting to see a real culture develop around the canon and, as we do, I think we’ll see more and more people having fun with it and making it their own in various ways. I’m thinking, for example, of the Facebook Sutta by Bernat Font. There’s enough sutta literacy around now that people immediately “got” the joke.

Of course, that also means that people will make the canon their own in more nefarious ways as well, as we’re now seeing with the rise of “Alt-Right Buddhism,” for example.

But monasticism has been slow to grow in the West, so I’m quite happy to see a Buddhist “textual community” forming. As a Buddhist monk, I really do believe in the transformative potential of the Pāli canon and am happy to see it get a wider readership (even if I’m also excited to see more Western monks and nuns in the coming decades!)

Is wordplay a form of skillful means?

I figure anything that gets people to open up the Pali dictionary is probably a good thing.

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