Scrabble auf Deutsch

firstwordBelieve it or not, this was, in fact, the first word played in our first German Scrabble game. (“Brau” is the imperative conjugation of “brauen” (to brew).)

The History

Despite having enjoyed quite a variety of board games growing up, and despite being a fan of word play in general, it somehow wasn’t until my junior year of college that I played Scrabble for the first time. It had to be explained to me that while, yes, one could get create multiple words in a single play, all of the letters one put down had to be colinear; my strategy of building in one direction, making a right turn, and continuing in another was not, in fact, permitted. I managed to get past this disappointing blow to my budding technique, though, and in short order I was hooked.

In the years that followed, I played Scrabble and its relatives in a variety of formats. Even back in college, there were online options, for when it was sometimes too much trouble to walk across campus and play in person; over the years, I engaged in Literati on Yahoo Games, Scrabulous (which then became Lexulous after legal wrangling) on Facebook, and eventually Electronic Arts’s official Facebook version. As for physical Scrabble games, there was the fancy rotating board (which, after several years of frequent use, unfortunately met its demise in a hot car in Las Vegas in 2004), Travel Scrabble (so that one needn’t be deprived while on the road), and the old-school set I inherited from my Uncle Bill. I also branched out to Banangrams and, on one occasion, Anagrams.

poor boardThe aforementioned victim of the Las Vegas heat. Interestingly, the playing surface not only buckled, but also shrank anisotropically (i.e., it got narrower without getting much shorter).

Game play styles ran the gamut, from friendly games where one might sacrifice a high-point play in order to put down a really fun but low-scoring word, to super-competitive games with bluffing as well as challenging, to games with additional resources allowed (e.g., the list of two-letter words) or where players had handicaps according to their amount of experience. But throughout all these years and variations, my Scrabble play was always in English.

My high school German studies had preceded my introduction to Scrabble by several years, so those two areas of interest never really overlapped temporally — until, of course, we moved to Germany. Then, trying out Scrabble auf Deutsch seemed like it would be a good way to combine recreation with language studies. I did a cursory search when we first got here, but I wasn’t able to find an online platform (possibly because I am not very good at web searching in German). Almost eight months later, though, an American flag appeared on the dictionary symbol in Facebook Scrabble. I checked to confirm and, sure enough, one now had a choice of dictionaries to play with — including a German one!

Exploring the new frontier

Turns out, I’m really bad at German Scrabble. After a few turns, this was the state of things:


Sure, I had a blank, but otherwise the situation was pretty dire: no 1-point letters; a single, 6-point vowel; and both the X and the Y.

We were playing with very forgiving rules (access to the list of two-letter words, no penalties for wrong guesses, etc.), so I wasn’t actually stuck. And looking back after the fact, Scrabblemania (the German equivalent of Win Every Game) reveals that, thanks to the blank, I could have made any of several three- or four-letter words I did already know (e.g., WEM, IHM, WEH, WÄHL, WÄRM).

Nevertheless, I was forced to realize I could not think of a single, real German word with X that I already knew independently. The three two-letter X-words in German Scrabble are EX (adopted from English), IX (which I wasn’t familiar with), and XI (the Greek letter). When I later asked my German teacher for the simplest word she could think of with an X in it, she suggested “die Axt” (axe, a feminine noun). Eventually, I finally thought of one that I had, in fact, known: “existieren” (to exist) — not, of course, that I could have actually played it with the tile rack I had.

“Y” was similarly challenging; this time, I solicited suggestions from a couple of my co-workers, who suggested “der Mythos” (myth) and “der Typ” (type). J and Z, by comparison, are easier to use in the German game than in the English one. I did already know some Q words: “die Quelle” (source) and “der Quark” (a yogurt-like cheese). Shortly thereafter, I learned “die Qualle” (jellyfish), and — very appropriately, from an ad for a Scrabble game being sold on — “qualmen” (to give off clouds of smoke).

Going further in depth

For those who might be curious, here is a chart showing the numbers of tiles (columns) and point values (rows) for each letter in the current English (blue and green) and German (orange and green) versions of the game. (In other words, green letters have the same point value and number of tiles in both versions.)

x1 x2 x3 x4 x5 x6 x7 x8 x9 x12 x15
5 K
10 ZQY

The German letter distribution has a strange quirk, in that some letters occur more often than others but are also worth more points. (Usually, there is an inverse relationship between point value and letter frequency; letters that are easier to play are both more common and worth less. Note that nowhere in the chart above is any blue or green letter both below and to the right of any other blue or green letter; this is not the case with the set of orange and green letters.) I don’t understand the linguistic reasoning for this part of the game design, but apparently it’s not unique to the German version; according to Wikipedia, 10 of the 41 languages in which Scrabble exists have at least one letter like that. (The others are Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, Estonian, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.)

One of my first impressions as we began to play was that there would be more opportunities for extending words in the German version. Consider verb conjugation, using sagen (to say), as an example. If someone played “sag” (the singular, informal imperative conjugation), it could then be extended to “sagt” (third person present), then “sagte” (first person past), then “sagten” (past tense infinitive). Sure, you can add various suffixes in English, too — and prefixes, as well, in either language — but how often is there the option for three in a row, one letter at a time (a key feature that means you can be building primarily in the perpendicular direction)? Adjectives have even more potential, thanks to the different endings depending on the gender and case of the noun they are modifying; for example, “rot” (red) –> “rote” (red, modifying a feminine noun) –> “rotes” (red, modifying a neuter noun) –> “rotest” (reddest) –> “roteste” (reddest, modifying a feminine noun) –> “rotestes” (reddest, modifying a neuter noun), for a total of five possible extension opportunities!

Technical aside: For those who are keeping track, I should note for the record that, yes, many of the words above have other uses besides the ones I named. “Sagt” is also the present tense conjugation for the second person plural; “rote” also modifies masculine and neuter nouns in the nominative case, if preceded by a definite article; and so on. I just chose one each, to keep things simple, but feel free to peruse all the options in, say, the helpful tables of

Zweibuchstabige Wörter (Two-letter words)

Perhaps most disconcerting and fascinating, though, was suddenly being faced with the prospect of learning a new list of two-letter words. It’s been so long since I learned the English ones, I had completely forgotten since then how much knowing the two-letter words affects one’s game play . . . until suddenly, I was playing a game in which I didn’t know them.

Looking at the new list, I initially thought there might be more two-letter German Scrabble words than two-letter English Scrabble words. Nope, I was quite wrong. The German version has only 76, while the English version has 101, including the contemptible “za”. (Both are paltry, though, compared to the Swedish version, which has 139. When discussing the matter, a Swedish colleague added the editorial comment, “If I count the ones I would personally consider words it is around 115. Of the 76 German words, there are also several that aren’t really words according to me. They count word stems that can never be used separately in practice, e.g. “sä” from the verb säen (to sow).” The German Scrabble rules do cover that technicality, though.)

Putting the two lists side by side, there were a few general patterns to be observed:

  • Names of letters in the German alphabet aren’t used, while English ones are.
  • The English list also includes a couple Hebrew letters, while the German list doesn’t.
  • Greek letters show up in both, though a couple (μ and ν) are spelled differently.
  • Tones of the diatonic scale are allowed in both, and they are spelled the same: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti/si.

Other than that, one just has to learn on a case-by-case basis which of the 29^2 = 841 combinations of two letters are, in fact, considered words. (In English, of course, there are only 26^2 = 676 options.) There was more overlap between the lists than I expected, actually; there are 44 two-letter words are valid in both versions of the game, with 20 having the same meaning and 24 having different meanings.

Here is the full list (collected from here, since Hasbro no longer has the list on their website, and here), with definitions in English for both:

word what it means in English what it means in German {gender, if noun}
AA rough, cindery lava poop {n}
AB abdominal muscle preposition, akin to “from”
AD advertisement to (from Latin)
AE (adj.) one
AG (adj.) pertaining to agriculture
AH interjection
AI three-toed sloth {n}
AL East Indian tree (mulberry?)
AM 1st person singular of “to be” contraction of “an dem”
AN indefinite article prepostion, akin to “on”
AR the letter “R” unit of area equal to 100 m2 {n}
AS (adv.) to the same degree 1. A-flat {n}; 2. Roman coin {n}; 3. ace (card) {n}
AT preposition
AU 1. floodplain {f}; 2. interjection
AW interjection
AX cutting tool
AY aye (i.e., “yes”)
BA soul (Egyptian mythology)
BE have actuality
BI bisexual
BO pal
BY preposition
gust of wind {f}
DA 1. (adv.) here, there; 2. (conj.) since
DE preposition (means “of, from”)
DO first tone of the diatonic scale
DU you (personal pronoun)
ED education
EF the letter “F”
EH interjection 1. (adv.) anyway; 2. (adv.) short for “ehe” (ere); 3. interjection
EI egg {n}
EL elevated train
EM the letter “M”
EN the letter “N”
ER interjection he (personal pronoun)
ES the letter “S” 1. it (personal pronoun); 2. E-flat; 3. id {n}
ET past tense of “eat” ampersand
EX the letter “X” 1. (adv.) former; 2. former romantic partner {m,f}
EY interjection
FA fourth tone of the diatonic scale
FE the Hebrew letter ף
GO to move along Japanese board game {n}
HA interjection
HE personal pronoun interjection
HI interjection (greeting)
HM interjection
HO interjection
HU “Whew!”
“What?” (i.e., impolite “Pardon?”)
ID a part of the psyche
IF a possibility
IM contraction of “in dem”
IN to harvest preposition akin to “in”
IS conjugation of “to be”
IT personal pronoun
IX part of a conjugation of “ausixen” (to cross out)
JA yes (interjection or {n})
JE 1. (adv.) per; 2. part of “je . . . desto” (two-part preposition used to compare two things)
KA Egyptian spiritual self
KI life force (qi)
JO sweetheart
LA sixth tone of the diatonic scale
LI Chinese unit of distance
LO interjection
MA mother
ME personal pronoun
MI third tone of the diatonic scale
MM interjection
MO moment
MU the Greek letter μ
MY possessive pronoun the Greek letter μ
NA (adv.) no, not 1. interjection; 2. variant of “nein” (no)
NE (adj.) nee (born with the name of) variant of “nein” (no)
NO negative reply
NU the Greek letter ν 1. moment {m} 2. variant of “nein” (no)
NY the Greek letter ν
variant of “nein” (no)
OB (conj.) whether
OD hypothetical force of natural power human spirit/soul/aura {n}
OE whirlwind off the Faroe Islands
OF preposition
OH interjection
OI interjection
OM mantra used in meditation
ON side of wicket where cricket batsman stands * visible on TV (“live”)
OP style of abstract art
OR the heraldic color gold *
OS ridge of sand; esker {m,n}
OW interjection
OX hoofed mammal
OY interjection
PA father
PE the Hebrew letter פ
PI the Greek letter π
PO butt, tush {m}
QI life force in traditional Chinese culture (ki) {n}
RE second tone of diatonic musical scale
SH interjection
SI seventh tone of diatonic musical scale (ti)
SO fifth tone of diatonic musical scale
ST “sh!”
conjugation of “säen” (to sow)
TA thanks
TI fifth tone of diatonic musical scale (si)
TO preposition
TU conjugation of “tun” (to do)
short for “Toilette” {f}
UD oud (stringed instrument) {f}
UH interjection “Ugh!”
UI “Jeez!”
UL north-German for “Eule” (owl) {f}
UM interjection preposition, akin to “around”
UN one
UP to raise
UR aurochs {m}, the ancestor of domestic cattle
US personal pronoun
UT musical tone in French solmization system
UZ 1. colloq. for “Neckerei” (banter, teasing) {f}; 2. conjugation of “uzen” (to tease)
WE personal pronoun
WO woe where
XI the Greek letter Ξ
XU Vietnamese monetary unit
YA you
YE you
YO interjection
ZA short for “pizza”
ZU preposition, akin to “to”
ÄH interjection (er, uh)
ÄS conjugation of “äsen” (to graze)
ÖD (adj.) bleak, dull
ÖL oil {n}
ÜB conjugation of “üben” (to practice)

* Despite not being the most commonly used definition, this is the one that comes up in word lists (presumably because it can be pluralized).


Most of this entry was put together in April of last year, but it was only now that I finally got back to cleaning it up and actually posted it. In the meantime, I’m sorry to say, I’ve played unfortunately little Scrabble, in either language. The Electronic Arts Facebook application was closed and replaced with a Mattel version with a much less attractive interface, and the game-playing line item in our time budget has instead been devoted to other options, such Agricola, Torchlight II, and Die Siedler von Catan. We did end up snagging a very nice physical Scrabble game from, though, so perhaps we will finally inaugurate it in the not too distant future . . .

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