Google Me Wordle
By Jeffrey Watumull, Oceanit Chief Philosophy Officer
The users of words, Hamlet said, are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time”. Indeed, nowhere is the brevity and abstraction of our historical moment chronicled more precisely than in Google’s annual Year in Search, atop which is enthroned Wordle – our most searched word of 2022.
The fact that so elementary a game of words—players are given six attempts to guess a five-letter word—should preoccupy the attention of oodles of the billion Googlers on Earth ought not to surprise us. (Nor should it surprise us if they have been playing in a fashion that is “unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”. That is, playing in goblin mode— Oxford’s Word of the Year.)
Right out of the mouth, you might say, Wordle has a leg up, so to speak, on the competition. The word itself is simply a pleasure to utter. It rolls around and off the tongue with almost synesthetic euphony—it almost literally tastes good, like choice produce in the Word Market of Dictionopolis. Wordle: it has the sound or flavor of an ambrosial alloy of warble and garble, or gurgle and burgle, or burble and gerbil—any of which would delight a Gödel.
There is something to say for the ‘flavor’ of words, and nobody states it better than Stephen Fry discussing jouissance and plaisir as understood by the early French structuralist linguists, whom we shall meet again (In thunder, lightning, or in rain?).
“Le plaisir du texte. The pleasure of the text. Those who think structuralism spelt or spelled death to conscious art and such bourgeois comforts as style, accomplishment and enjoyment might be surprised that the pleasure of the text, the jouissance, the juicy joy of language, was important to [these linguists]. Only to a dullard is language a means of communication and nothing more. It would be like saying sex is a means of reproduction and no more and food a means of fueling and no more. In life you have to explain wine. You have to explain cheese. You have to explain love. You can’t, but you have to try, or if not try you have, surely, to be aware of the astonishing fact of them[…]. To put it […] in an accidental line of decasyllabic verse, ‘none would be missed if they didn’t exist’. And if language didn’t elicit pleasure, if it didn’t have its music, its juiciness or jouissance would we notice, or would we always be destined to find pleasure in it because that’s a thing we humans can do? Out of the way we move we can make dance, out of the way we speak we can make poetry and oratory and comedy and all kinds of verbal enchantments. Cheese is real, and so it seems, is the pleasure of the text”.
Wordle exapts and gamifies the pleasure of language. (It becomes quite impossible to avoid eliding the word and the game—another phenotypic trait contributing to Wordle’s evolutionary fitness.) But sonic juiciness is not the only thing Wordle distills, for language is not only something we use. “Inescapably”, observes the philosopher George Steiner, “the ‘language-animal,’ as the ancient Greeks defined man, inhabits the bounded immensities of the word, of grammatical instruments. The Logos equates word with reason in its very foundation. Thought may indeed be in exile. But if so, we do not know or, more precisely, we cannot say from what”.
Thus the very definition of humans as “language-animals” proffered by the ancient Greeks, the proffering of language and linguistic communication—intra-mind and inter-minds—as the quiddity—the defining property—of our species, is not an arbitrary trope. Words and their combination into sentences, internal and/or external, mental and/or oral and/or written, are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilizes our identity. It therefore goes without saying why language speaks to us, but should we need to say so, once again nobody says it better than our Jeeves, Stephen Fry (with a big bit of help from his Wooster: the inimitable Hugh Laurie):
“Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my check-out girl. Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God. Language is the dew on a fresh apple. It’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pluck from an old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs. Language is the creak on a stair, it’s a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party. It’s the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl. It’s cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot”.
In the selfsame skit, serendipity strikes (for our purposes) as Mr. Fry most amusingly analogizes language to a game (albeit not Wordle)—mind you, not at all flippantly, but rather to draw what is in fact a most important distinction: “Let me start a leveret here: there’s language, and there’s speech; there’s chess, and there’s a game of chess. Mark the difference, for me, mark it”.
The difference has been well marked, first in the early twentieth century by Ferdinand de Saussure—the paterfamilias of structuralist linguistics—who distinguished langue (“language” in the sense of a natural language such as French or English) from parole (“speech” in the sense of the actual use of the language as when you utter or I write the expression “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers”). Later, in midcentury, the difference was marked—or reconceived—by Noam Chomsky—the Galileo of the modern study of language and mind, whose revolutionary generative theory overthrew not only structuralist linguistics, but also behaviorist psychology and the empiricist philosophy (e.g., positivism, associationism, etc.) on which it was founded. Chomsky distinguished linguistic competence or I-language—the intensional system (i.e., the computational procedure) internal to the mind of the individual—from linguistic performance—the use of that system, primarily in thought and only ancillarily in communication (and speech acts, etc.) or for any other reasons. (There is a term, E-language, which originally meant “everything else” besides I-language, but which has evolved to mean the extension of—the set of expressions generated by—I language.)
Speaking of Chomsky, like Fry he too adduced a chess analogy in explaining the nature of language. But unlike Fry, Chomsky exhibits chess and games generally as exotica that draw into relief how natural—how constitutive of human nature—natural language really is.
“Games are designed so as to be, in a sense, at the outer limits of our cognitive capacities. We don’t make up games in which we are as skilled as we are in using words, let’s say. That wouldn’t be an interesting game; everybody could do too much. What we do is we make up games like, say, chess, which is an extraordinarily simple game—that is, its rule system is utterly trivial—but nevertheless we’re just not very good at it. In the case of using language, we’re all extraordinarily good, and we’re essentially undifferentiable, one from another. But when we get to something like chess, which I assume is at the borders of our cognitive capacity, then individuals of very similar intellectual makeup will nevertheless diverge very significantly in their ability to deal with these exotic problems—that’s what makes it an interesting game”.
This is why Wordle is so extraordinary: it is something of a trojan horse out of an uncanny valley in that it enters stagnant minds in the most familiar of forms—namely, words—only to uncloak itself as a cryptographic puzzle that plays with—nay, perverts—the forms of words themselves. And as a game, it is played on the delightfully dangerous edge of our cognitive capacities, beyond which there be dragons of dumbfoundedness. The perversion of such a game, requiring such intricate analysis, excites nothing less than mental exaltation, an ecstasy akin to addiction that few other artifices can stimulate:
“My mind…rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation” (Sherlock Holmes).
Whilst Holmes (like Oceanit-ians) parlayed this craving for fun into his “own particular profession”, he observed how some others satisfy their intellectual appetites with chess—excellence at which is “one mark[…] of a scheming mind”. (Chess or chance?) Such a mind schemes to solve a problem it presents to itself, seemingly unnecessarily. Why? In other words, why play games? Shits and giggles is an obvious answer. Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Nota bene: This is no way meant to trivialize games. Quite the contrary: that humans struggle against pointlessness by engaging in seemingly pointless adventures is itself profoundly pointful. (The philosophy of “pointfulness” is the variety of absurdism we have advocated elsewhere, elsewhen.)
Nevertheless, we might suppose that some superintelligent extraterrestrial anthropologist studying our species would wonder why on Earth otherwise evidently rational featherless bipeds would invest so many resources (mental, energetic, spatiotemporal, economic, etc.) in such trifles. But these aliens should read their Holmes, for “there is nothing so important as trifles”. Indeed, one must read serious philosophy to understand games (and hence the Wordle craze).
The classic philosophical study describes games (introducing some technical jargon we will need) thusly:
“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]”.
For example, let us consider golf. (Of course, pun unintended, to understand the essence of golf one must experience the philosophical disquisitions of the late great Robin Williams.) In golf the prelusory goal is to cause a ball to go into a hole. One cannot just drop the ball in the hole, however; one must use the lusory means—to wit, the less efficient means (e.g., peculiar equipment, locations, etc.)—of causing the ball to go into the hole that are established by the rules. The reason we obey these arbitrarily difficult rules—the constitutive rules—is simply to make golf possible (i.e., this is our lusory attitude). Wordle obviously conforms to this concept of a game. (Identifying its prelusory goal, lusory means, constitutive rules, and our lusory attitude is left as an exercise—dare I say a game—for the reader.) Chess, surprisingly, disconforms. Surprisingly, and controversially. But the reasons why chess is not a traditional game—counterintuitive as that sounds—illuminates some of the reasons why linguistic intelligence—and hence the obsession with Wordle—is so extraordinary.
The prevailing theory of intelligence—i.e., the theory propounded in standard machine learning (ML)—disclaims as base anthrochauvinism any claim that the “language animal” (a.k.a. Homo sapiens sapiens) is at all extraordinary. This theory defines intelligence in simplistic game-theoretic terms: “An entity is considered to be intelligent, roughly speaking, if it chooses actions that are expected to achieve its objectives, given what it has perceived”. (Incidentally, the originators of game theory would have rejected this simplistic definition.) Thus, to invoke the game jargon, intelligence is directed to achieve prelusory goals—intelligence seeks to “maximize an objective function”, in ML-speak. Such a perfunctory definition accurately characterizes ML systems (e.g., the large language models (whatever-GPT-whatever) and diffusion methods (DALL-E x) so obscenely popular at time of writing), but is completely inadequate to describe the profundity of human-style—what Oceanit terms anthronoetic—intelligence. As your humble Padawan narrator and his wise Jedi master explain in their forthcoming book:
“[Oceanit’s theory of anthronoetic intelligence, which posits an “evolutionary epistemology” whereby human-style creativity consist in conjecture and criticism] is a revolutionary reversal of the […] paradigm in ML, where nontrivial creativity is impossible because the system measures itself against an ‘objective’ on which to converge in the future. But knowledge creation—the essence of creative intelligence—cannot be predicted (by definition), and therefore to stipulate an ‘objective function’ a priori is to condemn the system to chasing a wild goose not worth wanting[…]. There is an infinite search space of ‘objectives’ to construct/discover; and in such a space of possibilities—counterfactuals—the notion of ‘objective functions’ becomes vacuous.) We are working on the design of an anthronoetic—human-like—evolutionary algorithm at Oceanit Laboratories, and we hope that future readers will know its name and witness its life-like creativity. Such a system is designed not simply to solve problems, but in solving problems to create new, more interesting problems. This is the kind of ‘never-ending algorithm’ characteristic of life: “True open-endedness is what creates opportunities for future open-endedness” […]. Such an algorithm—encoding an evolutionary/assembly theory of knowledge creation—survives the criticism that a machine can only do “whatever we know how to order it to perform”, for it can pose new questions, conjecture new answers which in turn invite new questions, in a never-ending story”.
The open-endedness of language—including crucially the logical impossibility of predicting in advance what it will create—is mirrored in the design of chess, in contrast to virtually all other games, including Wordle, alas. The argument is rather abstruse (and fascinating), so suffice to say that chess, in its open-endedness, is more like the natural sciences, mathematics, and art than it is like golf or Wordle. This is because chess lacks a prelusory goal—to wit, a goal that can be identified prior to the game being played. “Wait a tick!”, you might interject and object, “Surely checkmate is the goal!”. Au contraire: checkmate is a postlusory discovery about chess. As one philosopher put it, we do not make chess moves and achieve victory; we select moves from the ones available to us by the laws of chess, and thereby discover victory. In other words, checkmate cannot be a prelusory goal because—as can be proved—no checkmate is knowably achievable prior to the game being played. And because checkmate is a postlusory discovery rather than a prelusory goal, chess—like anthronoetic science, mathematics, and art—seeks not to maximize a stipulative objective function (as in ML), but rather to explore strange new worlds. New worlds of ideas and the new combinations of words that constitute them. In the words of the Fry and Laurie bit:
“Imagine a piano keyboard, 88 keys, only 88, and yet, and yet, hundreds of new melodies, new tunes, new harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of different keyboards every day in Dorset alone. Our language, tiger, our language: hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of legitimate new ideas, so that I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: ‘Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.’ Perfectly ordinary words, but never before put in that precise order. A unique child delivered of a unique mother. And yet, oh and yet, we all of us spend all our days saying to each other the same things, time after weary time: ‘I love you’, ‘Don’t go in there’, ‘Get out’, ‘You have no right to say that’, Stop it’, ‘Why should I?’, ‘That hurt’, ‘Help’, ‘Marjorie is dead’. That surely is a thought to take out for a cream tea on a rainy Sunday afternoon”.
So, for Wordle and its competitors in 2023, “The game is afoot”, or rather, a word.