Linguistic Puzzles

Read these remarks carefully for important hints on how to solve the puzzles.

The following links will take you to some sample linguistics puzzles. These puzzles are copyrighted by the University of Oregon Department of Linguistics, but may be copied or printed for personal or classroom use.

The puzzles are grouped according to degree of difficulty, using the international system for rating downhill ski runs. Green circle puzzles are for everyone; blue square puzzles are for those who need a little more challenge; black diamond puzzles are the most challenging. The double black diamond puzzles are the toughest of the tough -- extreme caution necessary! These should only be attempted by experienced Challengers.

The puzzles on this site were designed for students whose native language is English. If you speak one of the languages represented, you may or may not find that puzzle as challenging as English speakers will. You may find many linguistics puzzles in other languages at the International Linguistics Olympiad website.

No additional resources (dictionaries, etc.) are necessary to solve these puzzles. Some, especially the "black diamond" puzzles, are very challenging, but each one is solvable with no special knowledge or outside references. It often helps to use lots of scratch paper. Every language is unique, and every puzzle in this selection is unique. Therefore there is not a single approach to solving all of the puzzles. Just use common sense, logic and patience. Sometimes you will find that a particular hypothesis or line of reasoning does not work. In such cases, try again using a different approach. Perhaps some languages are written right-to-left, or the verb may come at the beginning, or the end, of the sentence. It is these kinds of discoveries that make doing such problems an exceptional learning experience.

 Green Circle Puzzles

Agta, a seriously endangered minority language of the Northern Philippines.

Chickasaw, an American Indian language of the Southeastern United States.

Kurmanji Kurdish, a major language of Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire, 1325-1522.

Swahili of Eastern Congo, a major trade language of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Tajik, The national language of Tajikistan.

Turkish, the national language of Modern Turkey.

Yaqui, a Uto-Aztecan language of Arizona and Northern Mexico.

 Blue Square Puzzles

Archi, an endangered minority language of Daghestan, Russia.

Czech. Czech the time in the language of the Czech Republic.

Endo, a Nilo-Saharan language of Kenya.

French. Even your French teacher will find this puzzle challenging!

Hausa, a major trade language of West Africa.

Hawaiian, the Polynesian language spoken by native Hawaiians.

Indonesian. Learn how to do math problems in the major language of the country of Indonesia.

Luvian, an ancient language of the Middle East written in a hieroglyphic script.

Maasai, a Nilo-Saharan language of Kenya and Tanzania.

Quechua, the language of the ancient Inca Empire, and one of the national languages of Modern Peru.

Sanskrit, an ancient language of Northern India and the sacred language of the Hindu Vedas.

Shugnan, an Indo-Iranian language of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Swahili. A problem involving dates in the major trade language of East Africa.

 Black Diamond Puzzles

Babylonian. Decipher an educational document in the cuneiform writing system.

Georgian, a modern language that uses an ancient script.

Orkhono-Yeniseyan, an ancient language of Western Asia.

Samoan, the Polynesian language spoken in Western Samoa and American Samoa.

 Double Black Diamond Puzzles

Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia.

Ancient Inscriptions. Unlock the secrets of mysterious inscriptions on five Bronze-age gravestones.

Thai, the major language of modern Thailand.

Tocharian, an ancient language of China.