About the Linguistics Challenge

The Linguistics Challenge was a predecessor to the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. Its organizer, Tom Payne, has moved on to the NACLO, and the Princeton Linguistics Club (to whom all complaints should be directed) maintains this archive of its problems as an aid for interested students. The problems of the former Linguistics Challenge provide a unique educational activity that combines analytic reasoning and cultural awareness. Students learn about the richness, diversity and systematicity of language, while exercising natural logic and reasoning skills. Many of the puzzles you will find on this site highlight unique cultural features expressed by the languages represented (see, for example, the Hawaiian puzzle). The most successful students are those who are able to extend themselves beyond their usual thought patterns to discover ways in which speakers of different languages approach reality.

The puzzles

All puzzles that appeared in the Linguistics Challenge adhered to strict guidelines, as outlined by the charter of the International Olympics in Linguistics and Mathematics. These guidelines include:

a. All puzzles must deal with real, natural human languages. No made-up languages, computer languages or fantasy languages are admitted.

b. No simplification or made-up data is allowed. Everything in the puzzle must be accurate.

c. All puzzles must include an orientation paragraph giving geographic and demographic information on the language.

d. The best puzzles are those that illustrate some interesting cultural feature. Care must be taken, however, to be respectful of the language and its speakers. The puzzles must not treat the languages as curiosities, but rather should be genuinely educational in presenting each language as a unique and valuable expression of a particular culture.

e. Each puzzle must be self-sufficient. That is, all the information needed to solve the puzzle must be present in the data. The puzzle cannot require the student to have any previous knowledge of the language, or of linguistics. All linguistic terminology (such as "plural" or "suffix") is avoided insofar as possible.

f. There can be one and only one possible solution, and that solution must be consistent with the facts of the language.

g. There can be absolutely no typographical errors.


A competition involving linguistic problems was conceived by Russian linguist A. Zaliznyak in the 1950s, and in 1965 the first Russian linguistic Olympiad was held at Moscow State University. The linguistics competition joined with mathematics in 1971, and competitions have been held in Russia almost yearly ever since. In 2005, over 450 students participated in the Moscow Linguistic Olympiad and 350 in the St. Petersburg Olympiad. Other Linguistic competitive events have been held in other countries, but not in the United States until 1998. A "mini-" Linguistic competition was held in the Summer of 1997, with the help of Dr. Valentin Vydrine, the founder of the St. Petersburg Linguistic event. Since then, an event very similar to the Russian competitions was held at the University of Oregon in the Spring of 1998, 1999 and 2000. Since 2007, the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad has superseded the Linguistics Challenge.