Wordle: As word puzzles take over the internet, Hong Kong teacher creates Cantonese version

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When cryptically colored squares began flooding Lau Chaak-ming’s social media feeds earlier this month, the 37-year-old linguistics professor paid no attention. But curiosity soon got the better of him, and it wasn’t long before Lau was waiting until midnight – when the daily puzzle gets refreshed – to play Wordle, the word game that has taken over Internet.

Last Friday, while having breakfast at a local cafe with a colleague, Lau realized that many dishes on the menu were long. things like ditto (French toast), hofun (rice noodles) and blunder (coffee) were five letters long when written in jyutping, a romanization system used to spell Cantonese words.

Zidou, a Wordle spin-off in Cantonese. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

A friend of his had already made a variation of Wordle using Cangjie, a character input system. Inspired, Lau, who works at the Hong Kong University of Education, also set out to create a variation of the puzzle in her native language. He called her Zidouwhich means “to know”.

Building on a comprehensive word list compiled in a previous project, a cantonese dictionary he built seven years ago, Lau filtered through all five-letter words and selected about 900 of the most common to use as possible answers. Then he typed the words into Wordle’s open-source code.

“It was pretty easy to do. I did it in three hours,” he told HKFP.

An internet sensation

Lau’s Zidou is one of countless Wordle spin-offs created since the original game went viral. New York-based software engineer Josh Wardle released the puzzle last October as a gift to his pun-loving partner.

A Wordle game on the desktop. Photo: www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle

After Wardle added a sharing feature to the game – allowing players to brag about their language prowess – Wordle became an internet sensation. The appeal of the puzzle lies in its simplicity: any five-letter word starts the game, with color-coded tiles indicating how close players might be to the answer.

Zidou, too, has been making the rounds online since his early Saturday morning debut. On the local LIHKG forum, people posted their grids of green, yellow, and gray squares, and the link to the professor’s nightly creation.

“At first I thought I would be very happy if there were only a few hundred people playing,” Lau said. But on the second evening, there were already more than 10,000 games. I average over 10,000 every day. It’s quite exciting.

‘Very difficult’

The consensus, unsurprisingly, is that Zidou is a badass. While non-native Cantonese learners typically learn some sort of romanization—either Jyutping or another commonly used system, Yale—native speakers are generally unfamiliar with the phonetic spelling of Chinese characters.

Jyutping for some words is simple – they are spelled as they sound. But others might be trickier.

Instructions for Zidou, a Wordle spin-off in Cantonese. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

In a LIHKG thread titled “The Cantonese Wordle is Very Difficult”, people expressed their frustration with the game – although that didn’t stop many from trying.

“I googled a Jyutping list to help me out,” said one user, who used all six tries again before getting the answer.

Lau conceded the game is tough. “The English word is already difficult, and these are words that we look at and spell every day. For us, we rarely see Chinese characters spelled in jyutping,” he said.

A user replies “How did you guess it? and an aggrieved emoji in response to a post showing a successful Zidou grid. Photo: Screenshot via LIHKG

He lamented that the only romanization system students learn in local schools is in Mandarin, not Cantonese. “It’s sad that they’re being taught Hanyu Pinyin,” Lau said, referring to the name of the standard Mandarin romanization system, “but nothing about their native language.”

Just for fun, and then some

Speaking of language aside, Lau said he created Zidou more out of personal interest than as a teaching tool to promote the romanization of Cantonese.

“I just thought it would be fun,” he said. “I didn’t do it as part of my linguistic research and it’s not related to my academic work.”

Lau Chaak-ming, professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University of Education, has created a Cantonese version of the hit puzzle, Wordle. Photo: Supplied

Still, he hoped that people playing the game would not just guess at random, but understand a thing or two about Jyutping. Zidou has an additional feature that sets it apart from other Wordle variants – after entering a five-letter word, the game displays the respective Chinese characters so players know the exact matching word. Because Cantonese is a tonal language, there is often more than one.

“If 100 people who play the game learn Jyutping, then I think it’s a good thing,” Lau added.

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