It’s a great little-non-story for a Saturday. A few years ago, a bookshop in Camarthen stocked a few sets of the Welsh Scrabble game. No-one bought them.
Now, after we’ve had all the jokes (about the board isn’t big enough for all those long Welsh words like llongyfarchiadau… which is not true), or the more prosaic explanation that Camarthen is in the south where there are more English speakers, perhaps I can offer an alternative suggestion- that it just shows the Welsh (or at least, Welsh speakers) are more intelligent than the rest of us.
Why? Because they don’t like Scrabble. It’s a Bad Game, a Very Bad Game.
Now, there are some wonderful games out there. My family and friends have enjoyed long evenings playing Carcasonne, Escape from Atlantis, Othello, Hare and Tortoise and even the awful Monopoly. I’m a fan of the absolutely brilliant and hilarious Awful Green Things from Outer Space and a 1980s Judge Dredd game. We play Threes and Fives Dominoes, an excellent version of the classic game. Cards Against Humanity (minus a lot of the more dodgy cards) can also reduce us to fits of laughter.
But Scrabble? Scrabble is Just Wrong.
It renders down the glorious words of a beautiful poetic language into numerical bits- and they aren’t meant to be used like that. Samuel Beckett said ‘Words are all we have’, and he was right. Words express the heart and soul of a person in language that shapes their own personality. Long ago, a Russian named Vygotsky asserted his theory that intelligence comes through the use of language in early years- and that’s why schools spend so much time in the early years trying to give children an expanding vocabulary that enjoys the richness of words old and new. Speaking and listening make us smarter, more rounded human beings. One of my finest moments as an English teacher was to teach spelling patterns using Rap. My class would be given a set of words with similar spellings that rhymed (station, attention, education, etc) and challenged not just to learn them, but to compose a rhyming poem that could be set to a beat and performed. The results were often hysterically funny, but they all ‘got it’, the way sounds and spellings can work together almost as music.
Our language has wonderful words. ‘Slobberchops’. My Dad would use it when we were children, to describe a messy eater. Slobberchops. It actually goes back to (at least) the 16th century, but he didn’t know that- it was an excellent word, and that’s why he used it. We steal words from other languages too, like the excellent French ‘frisson’, describing that spine-tingling moment of awareness we get, (almost fear) when driving a car over a railway crossing with no barriers. Is anything coming? Feel the sense of Frisson. Say it. Absolutely perfect. Schadenfreude. Only the Germans would come up with a word like that. And so we use them all, to express the complicated thoughts and wishes knocking around our heads. Heck, even the Gospel of John starts with ‘In the Beginning Was the Word’… because the Word being referred to there was the Greatest Word and expression of them all...
And this is all why (coming back to where we started) that Scrabble is so Wrong- because we don’t talk in numbers or triple-word scores. Our best words come from the heart, and Scrabble reduces that to a desperate search for words, any words, that can be created using A,A,E,X,P,U,F… which leads to smash-and-grab raids on the poor English language, which has had enough to cope with after the crimes inflicted on it during the Referendum debate.
And Yes, I am rubbish at playing it. But have you seen the excuses for language that appear in a Scrabble dictionary? That’s not language play- it’s just the trivial pursuit of knowing stuff for its own sake, and doesn’t exercise its users in celebrating this wonderful form of expression we’re lucky enough to know and own.