Alaska Life

Wordle takes off — this time, in Iñupiaq

Wordle conquered the English-speaking internet in January. Now, a version of the word puzzle has launched in Iñupiaq, which some Alaskans hope will boost language revitalization efforts in a fun and engaging way.

Iñupiaq Wordle went live Feb. 7, according to Myles Creed, who helped create the game. Within six days, the Iñupiaq Wordle portal — at ilisaqativut.org/wordle — had received almost 1,000 hits. That number doesn’t show how many actually played, but it does broadly reflect people’s interest in the game’s Iñupiaq edition.

“A lot of people are trying it out,” Creed said. “We’re seeing a lot of people having fun with it and enjoying it and being excited about it.”

Iñupiaq Wordle

Creed is not Iñupiaq, but he grew up in Kotzebue and has a lot of Iñupiaq friends.

“Doing what I can to support the Iñupiaq language is something that’s really important to me,” he said. “I’ve been involved with language efforts for several years now, and I’m always looking for more opportunities to develop more resources.”

Wordle came online last year after New York software engineer Josh Wardle built the game, which offers players six tries to guess each day’s five-letter word. Players receive color-coded clues that indicate whether their guess included letters contained in the word.

Canadian linguist Aidan Pine, a Wordle enthusiast, in January released a free code template that allows people to make their own versions of Wordle in various languages and is specially tailored to work with Indigenous languages.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in various Indigenous language dictionary projects for the last nine years,” Pine said. “One afternoon, I decided to make some changes to the code that would make the game easily adaptable to other languages, with some particular design decisions made for Indigenous languages.”

Pine made a version for the Gitksan language and helped his friend and collaborator PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper make one for SENĆOŦEN. Pine doesn’t have a list of every community that used his code template, but he said it’s been used to make games in Indigenous languages such as Bardi, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Ditidaht, Klallam, Hawaiian, Nahuatl, Northern Sami, Ojibwe, Seri, Tunica and Wolastoqey.

“I think language revitalization technology ought to be owned, developed and maintained by the community, and so it’s cool to see so many people and communities spinning up their own versions,” Pine said. “From what I hear, it’s helping motivate people to look words up in their dictionaries, and keep thinking about the language, which I think is awesome!”

The instructions that Pine laid out on his blog were what Creed followed to create the site for Iñupiaq Wordle.

“I’m not a coder,” said Creed, who is a linguistics graduate student at the University of Victoria. “Probably the most difficult part for me was the coding and the technical background of how to create the Wordle.”

When more technical issues arose, Pine helped Creed solve them. Thanks to a practical template and Pine’s help, building the game took Creed only a couple days.

The words in the Iñupiaq Wordle come from the North Slope Iñupiaq Dictionary written by Edna Ahgeak MacLean, but players can suggest that creators add any words they see missing. Most Iñupiaq words are long, and Creed said he tried to find as many five-letter words as possible and pick the ones that would be familiar to people as the possible answers.

A language learner himself, Creed is in the process of developing his skills in the Iñupiaq language — and playing the game is one of the ways to do it.

“I’m enjoying playing it as well,” Creed said about Iñupiaq Wordle.

Creed is a part of a Iñupiaq language revitalization group, Iḷisaqativut, in which second-language learners and fluent speakers strive to carry the Iñupiaq language forward into the next generation. The name of the group means “those who we are learning with,” according to another group member, Qunmiġu Kacey Hopson.

“What we’re trying to do is just make sure that Iñupiaq is back in the mouth of our children, and that our future generations can grow up speaking Iñupiaq again as a first language,” Hopson said.

Since its formation in the mid-2010s, the Iḷisaqativut group has held a weekend gathering in Anchorage and three summer institutes in Utqiagvik, Nome and Kotzebue — two-week-long language immersion camps where beginners and fluent speakers spent time together, learning Iñupiaq.

“We had people come that were very, very new to learning and we also had people that were pretty far along in their language learning journey,” Hopson said. “That’s something that we do that I think is really special.”

2019 Iḷisaqativut instutite

Hopson said that while passing the Iñupiaq language down to future generations has been challenging, language leaders — such as Elder MacLean and many others — have worked hard to create the Iñupiaq language dictionary and keep Iñupiaq strong within the community. Now youths and people of different ages across the Iñupiaq-speaking world are also “trying to do their part and keeping the language strong,” Hopson said.

“We are also always learning from the good work that’s being done in other languages and by other communities,” she added.

During the pandemic, the Iḷisaqativut group hasn’t held in-person gatherings or language camps. That’s part of the reason why creating Iñupiaq Wordle and adding another virtual way for people to continue learning and having fun with the language was important.

“It’s definitely been a great way for people to practice their Iñupiaq in a way that doesn’t feel intimidating. Hopefully, it feels fun,” Hopson said. “Hopefully, it invites people in to just start practicing and start learning. … Making it fun is an important part of it — making it something that feels good to do.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported when the Iḷisaqativut group formed.]

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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