Academic at First Nations University turning Scrabble into Cree language game
Associate professor of mathematics keeps the Scrabble board, but makes new tiles for 'Screeble'
At first glance, the Scrabble board that Edward Doolittle uses looks just like any other. Look a little closer, and you'll see that some of the letters on the tiles have little accents above them.
Compare the scoring numbers of each tile to a traditional Scrabble game, or how the A, K and I tiles in Doolittle's cache vastly outnumber other letters, and it becomes clear that he's put a twist on the traditional board game.
Doolittle, an associate professor of mathematics at First Nations University in Regina, has tailored his Scrabble tiles so that the game can be played in Cree rather than English.
Why? He's a word nerd who loves playing crosswords, word searches and any other word games he can get his hands on. He's also a Mohawk speaker who is passionate about Indigenous languages.
"As a matter of general principle, anything that we do in English we should be able to do in other languages. So that's been my philosophy," he said.
Doolittle has already decided that the normal Scrabble board is too small for Cree — English uses five characters per word on average, Cree uses 10 — so he uses a Super Scrabble board.
Still, only basic Cree words fit onto the board, which can hold 21 characters.
Doolittle's handiwork — he calls it "Screeble" — is on display this week at the University of Regina's Indigenous Research Showcase.
The research paper he is working on focuses on the way he used statistics to figure out a way to make Scrabble playable in Cree.
Taking an online idea into the real world
Last year, Doolittle was doing an exercise where he created Scrabble tiles online so that he could learn the computer programming language Java, when he wondered if he could make the tiles in Cree.
He reached out to a colleague and they got started.
They flipped through the pages of a Swampy Cree dictionary and took a sample of about 1,000 words from it, to find a base ratio of letters to use on the tiles, a basic scoring system and to figure out how many tiles people need to start playing.
So far, Doolittle has done versions in Plains and Swampy dialects.
"Later, I figured why not just make this an actual physical reality," Doolittle said.
To do this, he made laser-cut wooden tiles that are almost identical in size to those of the game Scrabble.
He's not particularly concerned that the head honchos at Scrabble will come knocking on his door, because he still uses the Scrabble boards and is simply changing out the tiles.
Only a handful of people have played so far, but Doolittle says he's getting a lot of requests for people to get their hands on his version of Scrabble.
He said he is trying to fine-tune the points system and rules before he starts fulfilling the demand, but understands how "Screeble" can be an educational tool.
"Language learning should be fun, and it shouldn't just be work all the time. We need to make it enjoyable," Doolittle said.
He'd like to be able to distribute Screeble to schools, and hopefully be ready to host a Screeble tournament with a few different boards ready to go by this February.
As for which Cree word would get people the maximum points in Screeble, Doolittle said he doesn't know.
He points out that Cree has so many more words than English that a Screeble dictionary would not be feasible. Down the line, he'd like to create an app so that people can look up words while playing.
With files from CBC's Blue Sky and Sam Maciag