Illustration by Andy Smith

How Wirdle brought a Shetland dialect to the world

Wordle spinoffs have allowed minority languages to find a truly global audience—but not if the New York Times has anything to say about it
March 12, 2024

One of the most important issues facing humankind today is the rate at which our languages are dying. Some speakers of endangered and minority languages try everything they can to save or reawaken them. Julie Dennison speaks Shaetlan, a language of the Shetland Isles.

The health of Julie’s language, which is a combination of Scots and Norn (an extinct Scandinavian language spoken in Shetland for 1,000 years until the 19th century), never recovered from the influx of English speakers brought by the oil boom in the 1970s.

Two years ago, Julie was playing Wordle—the popular word game owned by the New York Times—when she had the bright idea of swapping the five-letter English words for Shaetlan ones: “bairn” and “blyde” instead of child and happy, “weety” and “himst” in place of rainy and huffy. She then teamed up with linguist Viveka Velupillai and Shetland dialect group I Hear Dee to create Wirdle: da daily Shaetlan Wird Game.

Their hope was that Wirdle might promote Shaetlan, perhaps even introduce it to a new audience—and that’s exactly what happened. Since its launch in February 2022, more than 20,000 users from 113 countries have played it. Until, that is, this February, when the New York Times threatened legal action (via GitHub) for breach of copyright. Wirdle was promptly taken down as a result.

Shaetlan is not the only heritage language with a community who have used the source code of Wordle to create their own version of the game: there’s the Kaurna Australian Aboriginal community’s Warradle, the Hawaiian Hulihua and the cheekily titled “Not Wordle” from Canada’s Gitksan Nation. There is even one for American Sign Language (called Dictle) and another in Klingon, a language in Star Trek (called mu’oy).

On present trends, the next century will see more than half of the world’s 6,800 languages become extinct, or “fall asleep” as language activists prefer to think of it. Most of these will disappear without being adequately recorded or written down, thereby eliminating any chance of them being “awakened” again in the future, let alone recaptured and gamified. Of course, more is lost than mere words. When a language dies, so does a culture and one community’s unique way of seeing the world.

Fun online language games are a small way to keep a language alive. Even just seeing one’s heritage language displayed in a shiny new game plays an important role in boosting a child’s sense of pride and identity in their traditional culture. But, in the end, the best way to ensure longevity is to speak the language at home with children. For a language to survive it must be spoken in the kitchen, or, as one Shaetlan speaker put it to me, in da keithen—and that’s not a five-letter word.