[The Smyrna word square, uncovered as a bit of puzzly graffiti in 2016.]
Have you ever tried to make a word square, fellow puzzlers? It’s an intriguing twist on crossword-style construction, except the words you place read both across and down in the grid.
For instance, a five-letter word square could read:
As you can see, 1-Across is also 1-Down, 2-Across is also 2-Down, and so on. (Appropriately enough, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have a puzzle involving this puzzly trope, and they call it “Across and Down”)
Word Squares have been around for centuries. One of the most famous is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:
Not only is it a word square, but it’s a palindrome as well!
It’s a neat little linguistic challenge, and as you might expect, they become more difficult to construct the larger they get.
But physicist, computer programmer, and all-around word enthusiast Eric Tentarelli might’ve cracked the code to making word squares in heretofore impossible sizes…
Doing so in Latin.
In the introduction to his WordWays article “Large Word Squares in Latin,” Tentarelli explains:
Large word squares have been pursued in many languages, but large word squares in Latin appear to have remained unexplored, despite the form’s origins in ancient Rome and despite the benefits offered by Latin inflectional endings.
New word squares constructed in Latin are shown to surpass in size those created in other languages to date, most notably by attaining the holy grail of logology: the first known non-tautonymic ten-squares consisting entirely of solid, uncapitalized words in a single language.
So, what does he mean? Well, essentially, people have been able to pull off word squares of impressive size — 8×8, 9×9, and 10×10 — but not without using certain undesirable words and word variants.
Those variants would include hyphenated words, tautonyms (scientific names where the same words is used twice, like vulpes vulpes for “red fox”), and capitalized words, aka proper nouns. Also, some puzzlers have mixed languages in order to create these word squares, similar to crossword constructors getting themselves out of a tough corner by using a European river.
Ideally, you want a word square consisting of, as he says, solid uncapitalized words in a single language.
Say hello to the first verified 11×11 word square in a single language.
“I produced these squares by selecting final rows that combined to produce common endings and therefore maximize the chance of completing the rest of the grid.”
By compiling lists from reliable, verifiable dictionary sources and building a database of potential words, Tentarelli gave himself a strong base to start with.
But by choosing Latin as the language of choice, he significantly increased his chances of success. Thanks to “its extensive and overwhelmingly regular system of inflectional endings,” Latin was an excellent choice for word squares, which are commonly constructed by placing the bottom words first and building upward from there.
From David Brooks’ article in The Concord Monitor about Tentarelli’s work:
English has some endings that finish up on many words, “-ING” being the most obvious example. but Latin has plenty more including some that extend to four and even five letters, which makes it easier to find word squares. “In Latin, if the words in the bottom rows combine to produce nothing but common inflectional endings, such as -NTUR or -ATIS, there is good reason to hope the remainder of the square may be filled,” he wrote.
[Four 10×10 word squares built from the same three final words.]
It’s honestly mind-blowing and so inspiring to see what puzzlers can achieve by combining their own linguistic insights with the processing power of computers.
Tentarelli has helped push an ancient style of puzzling to places it has never gone before, and he managed to do so in the original language. How cool is that?
And he’s not done. Apparently, he’s working on a 12×12 square now.
There’s no telling how much farther he could go in the future.
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