An education in four-letter words

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 February, 2004, 12:00am

Last weekend, Hong Kong held its first inter-school Scrabble Championship. The event was supposed to be held in spring 2003 but atypical pneumonia intervened, and although that useful acronym Sars is now finding its way into dictionaries, it was not a word that encouraged the gathering of children in confined spaces. Mattel, which makes Scrabble - 'The World's Favourite Word Game' - decided to postpone play for a year. Luckily H5N1 (which is unplayable on a Scrabble board) held off, and so 52 primary-school teams, of four pupils each, gathered at Po Leung Kuk Castar Primary School in Tsing Yi last Saturday to play Scrabble.

Fifty-two is an impressive turnout (the following day, 44 secondary-school teams would turn up for the senior competition) and BroadLearning, the online educational service that organised the weekend with Mattel, was pleased with this number. 'We didn't think they would all come,' marvelled Winnie Lor, BroadLearning's director of eLearning Services, as the children sat at long tables in the school hall, rattling bags of Scrabble letters and sounding like a genteel gathering of mahjong players.

David Chua, Mattel's country manager, said, 'Scrabble has been around for a long time in Hong Kong, more than 10 years, but it's high time for us to launch it as a fun, family game.' Mattel, of course, also makes Barbie - and when it was put to Chua that it might be a good moment to make a Scrabble Barbie, because Barbie has split from Ken and has a lot of spare time on her carefully moulded hands, he said, 'Good idea.' Unfortunately, Barbie doesn't speak but Chua, thinking of his local market, added, 'And the timing is right for Scrabble here because the Government is promoting a Good English campaign in Hong Kong.'

Scrabble, which is called ping tze - 'put words together' - in Chinese, is, indeed, played in English, although you'd hardly know it if you'd spent time at the desk where strange assortments of letters were being checked. All day, word judge Lucy Yiu Siu-wah, who teaches at Sha Tin Government Primary School, was handed challenge slips bearing unlikely, often wistfully random, combinations (YUE, ZON, LD) which she fed into a Scrabble website then decreed valid or not.

'Sometimes they have very weird words,' said Yiu. But the valid words seemed just as odd. 'KY? Yes! MI? Yes! AA? Yes!' said Yiu. For a native English speaker, this was instructive: you didn't know AA was a word? It is rough, jagged lava found in Hawaiian volcanoes, and the more canny children had been coached to use it. The word LI (a Chinese distance unit) was understandably popular but what about NOIL and CUKE, both of which appeared on boards? 'Yes! They are acceptable words,' said Yiu, running a quick check.

Also acceptable were DAE, PIB, LAU and GAN, judging by what was played, unchallenged, on one sample board. The children, whispering in Cantonese, blithely placed these triplets of tiles as easily as PIG, CAT or SEX, for which one game pupil from Good Counsel Catholic Primary School gained nine points; KISS had been played on the same board, for eight points. After a while, the English language began to look so unfettered that anything seemed possible.

'At least it gives you an incentive to consult the dictionary,' remarked Alan Leong Kah-kit, former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association and guest of honour. The press release had promised that Leong, 'a keen Scrabble player', would share his Scrabble memories with the audience but it would be fair to say his appreciation of the game had its limitations. 'I didn't really like it,' he revealed. 'When we went on school picnics, we played it on the coach. I was never really a great fan of Scrabble.' So why was he here? 'I know the organisers,' replied Leong, frankly.

He watched the lines of children - some solemn, like embryo politicians in tiny bowties, some giggly - then added, 'If we are to remain competitive, we have to improve English standards, otherwise how can we be a World City?'

Whether Scrabble is an answer to Hong Kong's linguistical problem, however, is debatable. 'We have only been doing this for a month,' said Yiu, who had coached a Sha Tin team. 'I told them to go home and recite all the two-letter words and learn other words from the dictionary. It's amazing - so many words exist that we didn't know!' One of the boys from another team said he'd learned the word QAD - words containing the letter Q being useful in gaining high scores on a Scrabble board - but when he was asked what it meant, he replied, 'I don't know.'

Mattel had printed an apparently useful list of two-letter words (KO, a Maori digging stick; GU, a simple violin used in Shetland), and the triumphant boys from Shing Kong Hui St Michael's School were still clutching it after being declared the overall winners at 4pm. They were accompanied by a man who introduced himself as Valjean Hui. (Asked if he was named after the Valjean character in the novel and musical Les Miserables, Hui replied, 'Yes, number 24601'.)

One of Hui's team, Henry, had also won a prize for the highest word score with a combination of SCHOOLS and UTS (67 points), and the boys were arguing whether or not UTS should have been challenged by his opponent. According to Mattel's list, UT was a musical note and Henry thought UTS, as a plural, was acceptable. Lawrence, Henry's team-mate, was making disbelieving noises: in Scrabble lingo, he was muttering ST (an exclamation of impatience) to his BO (American slang for friend).

When asked to analyse the appeal of Scrabble versus, say, Gameboy, Lawrence immediately said, 'Gameboy is out. It's old-fashioned.' And Scrabble? 'I need to think.'

He contemplated the table for a moment, then pronounced, 'It's better than Gameboy, but not better than PlayStation.'

How was the team planning to mark its victory? 'We are going to McDonald's,' said Hui. Some things remain constant and the capacity for boys to be revolting is universal, in any language. When it was pointed out to them that going to McDonald's might not be good for the brain cells, Lawrence said, cheerfully, 'But we're going to eat some brain cells.'