In late December 2021, Fernando Serboncini came across a cascade of posts on his Twitter feed featuring lines of gray, yellow, and green box emojis. The Brazilian-born Google engineering manager had spotted the calling card for Wordle, a now-viral web browser game that gives players six attempts to guess a different five-letter word each day.
Serboncini, who lives in Montreal and moonlights as an indie game developer, has played plenty of word games that have left him frustrated. “I’m always interested in games and understanding how things work. Most word games have a lot of design problems; this one didn’t,” he told Rest of World. But even the simplicity of Wordle left something to be desired. “English is my second language. So it’s fun. I do well, but I’m not amazing at it.” He decided to adapt the game to his mother tongue.
Over just a few days around the New Year, Serboncini built Termo — his own Portuguese version of Wordle. He wrestled with how to incorporate verb conjugations and diacritics (the accent symbols found on many Portuguese words) but managed to make adjustments without changing Wordle’s core gameplay.
When he finished, he sent the link to two friends, with little intention of publicizing it. But those friends shared it with their friends, starting a group-chat domino effect. Within an hour, he says, there were 10,000 users visiting the site. Just three weeks later, Termo has hit almost 200,000 players per day.
Serboncini wasn’t the only Wordle player looking to compete in their own language. As the game has gone viral around the world, over a dozen Wordle-inspired games have launched in languages other than English, including Spanish, German, Urdu, Hungarian, and Japanese. Some of these games remain low profile and are passed around the Twitterverse by fans, while others, like Termo, have racked up daily visitor counts that rival the original and are being written up by local media outlets.
Developers have had to bend Wordle’s rules to make the game work for other writing systems. For Sankar, a software architect in Chennai, India, adapting Wordle to his native Tamil meant getting rid of the six-guess limit. Tamil script is syllabic, meaning that each of its 12 vowels and 18 consonants makes a unique pair. That adds up to over 200 compound symbols, and players are confronted with far too many options to reliably win in six guesses or fewer. Players routinely post Tamil Wordle attempts on Twitter that cross into double digits, with as many as 50 tries. Sankar now tweets a hint at midday.
A few weeks after its launch, Tamil Wordle has 1,500 daily players and has reached corners of the world Sankar never anticipated. One player sent Sankar a screenshot showing that “Tamil Wordle” was a trending topic on Twitter in Albania, where the game had been making the rounds in the Tamil-speaking diaspora community.
“I wanted to make something fun, so that it will be used by my daughter,” Sankar said. “Even though she’s growing up in India, she speaks and thinks in English because that is what the language of education is.” He hopes that his take on Wordle can offer an outlet for players to practice their Tamil and reconnect with words they may not use in everyday conversation.
Fatih Kadir Akin, a software developer living in Istanbul, has seen the Turkish version of Wordle he built for himself and his friends also take off. He received a flood of complaints on Twitter this week when the GitHub-hosted game went offline for a few hours as he tried to migrate it to a new domain; he’s now put that plan on hold.
One challenge with translating the game into a new language is finding a high-quality five-letter word list. Akin pulled his Turkish game dictionary mainly from a website that published a full cheat sheet for five-letter Scrabble answers. Serboncini said the absence of a quality open-source Portuguese lexicon to build on was the most difficult part of developing Termo; he suspects this may be why there are so few indie word games available in Portuguese. Once the Wordle hype has settled down, he said, he plans to make his own Portuguese lexicon available to any developer.
But some languages may never be successfully Wordled or, at least, not without making the game unrecognizable.
“Any alphabet writing system can probably work with Wordle, with some minor adjustments,” Dustin A. Chacón, a research scientist at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Neurolinguistics Lab, told Rest of World. In the alphabets of many languages, including English, Portuguese, and Urdu, one symbol more or less corresponds to one sound. But many of the world’s most common written languages don’t fit this mold.
Chinese, for example, is known in linguistics as a logographic writing system, in which one character can represent an entire word or phrase. “A Chinese version of Wordle would need a lot of adaptations to be practical or fair,” Chacón said. “But I’d like to play it.”