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March 2008 Archives

March 4, 2008

the roots of all nerdiness

The game board
Originally uploaded by tla.

I have been branching out of my own field for the past couple of weeks, and attending a comparative philology seminar -- although I have a thing for languages, I have never looked very much at linguistics. It happens that the seminar is focusing this term upon Armenian, a language I know to some extent, which means that it's easier for me to follow the talks than it might otherwise be.

The speaker for today was forced to cancel his appearance on short notice, but the ever-resourceful convenors of the seminar came up with a brilliant substitution. Who knew that Indo-European phonology could be turned into a board game?

Each player (or team) draws a card from a shuffled deck. The card has an Indo-European root word and a modern-language word (in this case, all of the modern words were Armenian) into which the root word has evolved. On the back of the card there is a sequence of stages that the evolution may have taken. This sequence is handy if a player (e.g. me) knows pretty much nothing about linguistics or phonology. On the other hand, if a player is good at phonology, he is free to arrive at a different (possibly shorter) route of evolution, as long as it is valid. For example, the card that my team drew was:

*kwóteros > ór (the nominative / accusative relative pronoun)

The steps on the back of the card were:
1. *kwóteros > óteros
2. *óteros > óyeros
3. *óyeros > óeros
4. *óeros > óros
5. *óros > órokʿ
6. *órokʿ > órkʿ
7. *órkʿ > ór

Now certain of these changes must happen before others; for example, the 'y' in step #3 can't drop out until the 't' has become a 'y' in step #2. Others can happen independently; for example, it doesn't matter whether the first step I play for is the loss of initial kʿ in step #1, the changing of the last consonant from s to kʿ in step #5, or the change from t to y in step #2.

So everyone has his card, and his token; these tokens all get placed on the "Start" square of the board. Each player rolls between 1 and 10 dice; each die has a 50% chance of rolling a 1, a 33% chance of rolling a 2, and a 17% chance of rolling a 0. Add up the numbers, move the prescribed number of spaces in any direction you like. Each square represents a known phoneme shift in Indo-European, e.g. "*t > y between vowels" or " *t > tʿ ". In our example above, I very much don't want to land on the latter square -- if the t in my initial word changes to an aspirated t, it cannot then change into a y, and my word evolution will be torpedoed. The winner is the first player who has travelled around the board landing on all the squares necessary to evolve his word in a workable order, without making a wrong move. Squares that represent changes that are not applicable to your word (e.g. "*d > t") are safe, but don't help you make progress.

An advanced version of the game gives players three or four words to work on at the same time. The same principle applies, but here the player must be careful to avoid squares that will derail the evolution of any of his words. On the other hand, of course, a single square might progress the evolution of all three!

One of the attendees proposed a variant in which one player's move affects the other players; this would open the possibility of player attacks on each other. I think this would be brilliant, although there would have to be a mechanism whereby a player can recover from a bad shift. Any game designers out there want to have a crack at it?

About March 2008

This page contains all entries posted to collected eccentricities in March 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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