Winning Wordle—the daily online word game currently captivating the internet—requires a healthy dose of luck. Players have six chances to guess a five-letter word. Every time they guess the correct letter in the correct spot, it turns green. Correct letters picked in the wrong order are highlighted in yellow. The more letters the player gets right, the more information they have at their disposal, but their chances of winning early in the game depend on what the word is that day and which letters they decide to guess first. That random element is part of the fun, but there are some skills and strategies you can use to master the puzzle.
As David Shariatmadari writes for The Guardian, a bit of linguistics knowledge goes a long way when playing Wordle. Once you've guessed a couple of letters correctly, your challenge becomes determining what other letters fit around them and in what order. M and p go together, for example, but only when the m is in front of the p, and never at the beginning of a word. When pairing t and r, it's always tr at the start of a syllable and rt at the end.
These linguistics rules are called phonotactics. Like all languages, English follows some restrictions regarding which consonants pair together and where they belong in a word. In general, "hard" sounds like p and c, which are less sonorous, appear before more sonorous "soft" sounds like l and r at the beginning of a syllable. At the end of a syllable, the more sonorous sound appears first. This rule is called the “sonority sequencing principle," and it's on display in words like blurt, crust, and trawl.
Unlike some quirks of English, this rule isn't arbitrary. Words that smoothly transition in and out of their more sonorous sounds are easier for speakers to say for listeners to understand. If words break this rule, they sound awkward and unnatural. (Try starting a syllable with rt or lb to hear what we mean.) This is why languages other than English also follow the sonority sequencing principle.
Keeping this principle in mind can help you take your Wordle game to the next level. If you know the word of the day contains a hard consonant like b but you don't know where to put it, the first and last spots in the word are your best guesses. Just remember that how sonorous a word sounds isn't a fixed value. A c becomes soft when it's placed in front of an h, and a g is totally silent before an n. Here are more quirks of the English language you should know.
[h/t The Guardian]