Each day, a surprisingly simple game awaits: Guess a randomly generated five-letter word in six attempts. But what the Wordle phenomenon can teach us is actually quite complex.
Since its public debut in October 2021 and subsequent purchase by The New York Times Company, the online word puzzle created by Josh Wardle has taken the world by storm and looks like it’s here to stay.
Alexis Palmer, assistant professor of linguistics at CU Boulder, is a self-described word-game aficionado. She is also a computational linguist, a subfield of artificial intelligence that sits at the intersection of linguistics and computer science.
“Wordle appeals to our intuitive knowledge of what words can look like in English,” said Palmer. “Not only what words are in our vocabulary, but what words are possible.”
This is a lot of what linguistics is, she said: trying to codify those rules and figure out what our knowledge of a language is, as a native or fluent speaker.
When Palmer started in this field two decades ago, it was an important frontier. Now it has become part of our daily lives, as computational linguists create and improve systems like spell check, predictive text, Siri, Alexa and Google Translate.
Computational linguistics can even support the documentation and revitalization of endangered languages, something Palmer works on herself.
But what gives Wordle its mass appeal is that it doesn’t matter what you know — it’s using what you don’t know you know. And her strategy to win in as few tries as possible is to start with a word full of vowels, or the most common letters in the English language: R, S, T, L, N and E.
“Of course, from a computational perspective, you could also just write an algorithm to solve Wordle puzzles, but where’s the fun in that?”
Illustration by Drew Shannon