Il ne parle pas français

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It seems impossible, but the news is being trumpeted all over the world:  the reigning champion of Francophone Scrabble cannot speak French.

"Kiwi Nigel Richards wins French Scrabble contest, doesn't even speak French" (7/21/15)

President of the Christchurch Scrabble club Shirley Hol said the French win was "quite remarkable".

She was told about his victory on Monday and said from what she had heard the French were quite "gobsmacked".

"I think one of the comments was 'Are you extra-terrestrial or something?' Because it was so amazing."

Here are some French articles about this astonishing feat:

"Il ne parle pas français mais devient champion du monde de scrabble francophone" (7/21/15)

"Champion du monde de Scrabble francophone, il ne parle pas français" (7/22/15)

"Le Scrabble francophone a un nouveau champion du monde depuis le 20 juillet. Paradoxe : il ne sait pas parler français."

"Scrabble : il ne parle pas français et devient champion du monde francophone" (7/21/15)

"Neil Richards, originaire de Nouvelle-Zélande, a appris par coeur les mots de 'L'Officiel du Scrabble'."

"Le champion du monde de Scrabble francophone ne parle pas un mot… de français" (7/22/15)

JEU – Lundi 20 juillet, le Néo-Zélandais Nigel Richard est devenu champion du monde de Scrabble francophone. Un exploit d'autant plus remarquable qu'il ne parle pas français et n'en connaissait pas un mot il y a trois mois. Découverte d'un surdoué ['gifted'] qui joue avec les lettres mieux que personne.

"Champion du monde de Scrabble francophone mais il ne parle pas français" (7/21/15)

"Il ne parle pas français et est champion du monde de Scrabble" (7/21/15)

In case you were wondering, Richards is also by far the best Scrabble player in the Anglophone world.

What I'm wondering about is how Richards' brain works, especially since it seems that not only is he unable to speak French, he doesn't pay attention to the meanings of words but just memorizes their spellings from L'Officiel du Scrabble (ODS).  Apparently, not all the words in ODS are defined, and the explanations for those that do have definitions are succinct, assuming a considerable level of familiarity with French culture.

Whether the definitions of the words in ODS are adequate or not is irrelevant so far as Richards is concerned since he doesn't know French and wouldn't be able to understand them anyway.

Since Richards achieved his phenomenal win after only two or three months of preparation, his mnemonic powers may exceed even those of the Indian whiz kids who consistently walk away with American spelling bee championships, as featured in a number of Language Log posts, since they spend years honing their skills.

[h.t. Michael Carr]



27 Comments

  1. carl said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:30 pm

    The comparison to "Indian whiz kids" is inapt, since they are Americans (of Indian descent) spelling words in their native language.

  2. AntC said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

    Thanks Victor. As a 20+ year resident of Christchurch, NZ, I'd never heard of this guy until he appeared in the local paper this week. http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/europe/70441615/kiwi-scrabble-star-masters-french-vocabulary

    Perhaps his not speaking French/getting distracted by the 'logic' of the language is useful in the same way as for proof readers who check texts 'backwards'. The article in the local paper mentions that he successfully challenged a word fureter that his (French-speaking) competitor placed, and which looked legit, but isn't.

  3. Mara K said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    I've read somewhere that a lot of English-language Scrabble champions are from Southeast Asia and use the same memorization strategy. Wikipedia confirms that English-language Scrabble is a big thing in Thailand, but I can't find the article I first read that in. Anyway, because of that, this story struck me as being more about stereotypical French pride and/or xenophobia than about the newsworthiness of a man winning a language contest without knowing the language the contest is in and about.

  4. AntC said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

    (BTW my Chrome browser alleges this page is in French. Allowing it to translate does a pretty good job, and leaves the English untouched. Except that it flips "AntC said" to "Said CNTA". It must be assuming I'm speaking on behalf of some French acronym.

    Even more bemusingly, it translates fureter to ferret and attempts to translate the rest of that sentence, resulting in an astonishing garble.)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:26 pm

    The Wikipedia article on Richards indicates that many of the world's biggest and most important Scrabble tournaments are held in SE Asia. Why that should be so I have no idea. Richards himself has moved to Malaysia and that is where he is living now. There must be a reason for that, and since he is a giant in the world of Scrabble, it probably has something to do with that.

    I don't think the newspaper articles, no matter in which language, have anything to do with "stereotypical French pride and/or xenophobia". Everybody is dumbfounded by Richards' incredible achievement. I myself am in awe of what he has done, and I don't think there is any easy explanation for it.

    As stated in the o.p., "his mnemonic powers may exceed even those of the Indian whiz kids who consistently walk away with American spelling bee championships", all the more so because they are working in their native (American) tongue, while Richards is the champion both in his native tongue and in a foreign language that he doesn't even speak.

  6. Meg Wilson said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

    What's amazing isn't that he doesn't know the meanings (hard-core scrabble players memorize lots of obscure words without bothering about the meanings), but that he doesn't have the life-long experience of visual pattern-recognition for French words.

  7. CLThornett said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 12:47 am

    A member of my extended family, an NNES, thought that online Scrabble would help improve her English, but found that while she became very good at Scrabble, she didn't get the language benefit she expected. I've always assumed that this was the product of an exceptional visual memory, given that she worked in an area requiring very good visual skills. Like Richards, she got a Scrabble dictionary and memorised words, though perhaps not so quickly.

    Experiencing and using English on a daily basis did for her English what Scrabble couldn't. As it happens, this woman is from Thailand–but that may only indicate where she acquired the belief that Scrabble is an effective language-learning tool. It's possible that some education systems promote and develop memorisation skills better than others, of course.

  8. Florence Artur said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 1:19 am

    Fureter is a legitimate word!!!!!

  9. Bruce said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 1:50 am

    I would assume the French Scrabble community is not as well-developed and competitive as the American one. Perhaps the French elite players are only spending half the hours a week practicing that the English-speaking players are. The actual knowledge base is relatively unimportant compared to the discipline, mental agility, and experience.

    This might be a provable hypothesis – there may be some way of quantifying words known, to see if the victory came from quantity of words memorized, vs. superior speed of recall or strategy.

  10. Lieven said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 1:59 am

    He challenged the word "FURETEES", which is invalid because fureter is intransitive. This makes his feat even more remarkable that he remembered these details about verbs he didn't understand.

  11. James said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 2:33 am

    @Florence: indeed. The offending word was not FURETER but *FURETEES, disallowed since fureter is listed as intransitive.

  12. Laura Morland said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 2:53 am

    @Florence Artur

    "A key moment in the game came when Richards successfully challenged his rival's use of a form of the verb "fureter" (to snoop)."

    The key seems to be "a FORM of the verb" — perhaps his challenger conjugated it incorrectly?
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/europe/70441615/kiwi-scrabble-star-masters-french-vocabulary

  13. Laura Morland said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 2:59 am

    @ James

    Your post hadn't shown up when I was composing mine — bravo for discovering the "offending" form!

    Since the New Zealand champion doesn't know French, it's quite remarkable that he would know which verbs are transitive and which not… perhaps it was a lucky guess on his part? Or could his Scrabble preparation actually be so highly developed as to encompass that level of understanding?

  14. Mark Etherton said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 4:43 am

    For what it's worth, the on-line version of the Académie française dictionary says fureter can be transitive, in its first meaning of hunting with a ferret. It gives the example of fureter une garenne (hunting a warren). This means that you could have a number of warrens, all of which had been furetées.

  15. AntC said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 5:37 am

    Thanks @Florence, my mis-interpretation. The article I cited says the challenge was to a "form of the verb" (not further specified). Perhaps fureter is irregular?

  16. mollymooly said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 6:42 am

    No dictionary is complete. For someone with a huge vocabulary, the question for an obscure word may not be whether it is "real", but rather whether a given dictionary is comprehensive enough to include it. Someone who merely learns off the list of words in that dictionary will not have such a problem.

  17. Joseph F Foster said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 7:15 am

    What this whole episode shows is the utter banality of Scrabble and the triviality of spelling.

  18. mollymooly said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    Two books on the Internet Archive with "furetées":

    * fourth line from the end here

    * middle of second-last paragraph here

  19. Adam F said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    It seems to me that there's a significant difference between memorizing words for a spelling bee and doing it for Scrabble: in a spelling bee, you need to know the rough definitions of homophones. For example, if you're asked to spell /baɪt/, you should ask for a definition or an example sentence because the right answer could be "bite", "byte", or "bight". In Scrabble, only the points matter.

  20. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 8:11 am

    @Joseph Foster,
    Scrabble is more than just spelling. There is a lot of skill and strategy required. Knowing to spell well is a requirement, not not sufficient to do well in Scrabble, just as skating is necessary but not sufficient to play ice hockey well.

  21. Dan said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 8:33 am

    The linked wikipedia article (about the French Scrabble dictionary) notes that:

    C'est une référence unique et sans ambiguïté pour déterminer si un mot est valable ou non (pluriels, conjugaisons…) au Scrabble francophone.

    (which I'm assuming means roughly "It is a unique and unambiguous reference for determining if a word is allowable or not (plurals, conjugations) in French Scrabble")

    which seems to suggest that it lists (or at least alludes to) every allowed derived form of every word? So it's not that he knew that fureter was intransitive, he just knew that furetees wasn't in the list.

  22. Aaron said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    My mother played Scrabble competitively, which may be what makes this story not so astonishing to me. To play at a professional level you have to memorize an awful lot of arbitrary strings of letters from the official dictionary, since many of them are extremely obscure terms that even native speakers do not know or ever use. Mom spoke with a good vocabulary, but had also learned by rote many, many words whose meanings she did not have the slightest idea of because it didn't matter for her purposes. You also have to remember which words are *not* in the official dictionary, though they may exist in other dictionaries.

    Where Mr. Richards must differ from his competitors is in superior memorization ability and (I would guess) superior drive to get that memorization done. But that's the same combination of factors that always wins in Scrabble, this is just an extreme case.

    Though I always tried to be supportive of my mother out of a sense of filial piety, between you and me I can't stand the game, at least as it's played in tournaments. It takes the adulation of an official language standard into the realms of absurd parody, reducing vibrant living languages to What's In The Book and nothing more.

    Could this family history give some insight into why I chose to study descriptive linguistics? Well, I'll save that discussion for my therapist…

  23. Treesong said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

    Old news to anglophone Scr*bbl* fans. Panupol Sujjayakorn won the 2003 anglophone world championship in Malaysia (against the equally Thai Pakorn Nemitrmansuk), and he couldn't speak English at the time. At least, not according to http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/he-doesnt-speak-english-but-thai-man-is-finalist-for-25000-top-prize-at-2005-national-scrabble-championship-54990472.html .
    Incidentally, Nigel Richards also won the anglophone Scr*bbl* championships in 2007, 2011, and 2013, and came in second (to Pakorn Nemitrmansuk) in 2009.

  24. Xmun said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    Please forgive the pedantic quibble, but "Français" in your heading should not have an initial cap.
    [VHM: Fixed now. I'm amazed that nobody else pointed that out. I was subliminally aware of that myself, but just never got around to changing it.]

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

    Nitpick: "Français" is capitalized only when it is a proper noun referring to someone who is French, and not when it refers to the language or is used as an adjective. So it should be "Il ne parle pas français."

  26. TomParmenter said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    Winning Scrabble® has as much to do with positioning the tiles on the board as it does with knowing words.

  27. J. Goard said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

    I'm a (decade or so retired) Scrabble expert, and back in the day played quite a bit of the French game online, despite what was probably a high beginner level of French at the time. I can assure you that it comes perfectly naturally for a high-level Scrabble player, studying by typical means, to quickly pick up on inflectional schemas in a language, and then efficiently memorize words (often with unknown meaning) in terms of which schemas they do or don't fall into.

    I'm guessing that a big part of Nigel's win has to to with the older and deeper level of simulation-aided strategic analysis in the anglophone Scrabble world, contrasted with a French scene that is only still emerging from a history of primarily duplicate play, which involves essentially none of the complex strategy that exists in a two-player game.

    Nigel is a truly amazing player, but I'm pretty sure that if we simulated all of his moves in French, they would fall far short of what any high expert would accept as satisfactory play in English Scrabble. Give the French a decade or so, and we're likely to see a crop of young players who apply our strategic standards to their own lexicon.

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