Yes, I tried “meme” out of desperation. No, I would have never guessed “keyk.” Image: Screenshot from Saltong
As a writer, I was immediately intrigued by the rise of Wordle, a daily online word game that’s kind of like a mix of a crossword puzzle and Scrabble.If you don’t already know how it works: Players get six attempts to identify the word of the day. Each guess must be a valid five-letter English word. After each guess, the colors of the tiles will change to show if any of the letters in the guess are also in the word of the day, and if they’re in the same spot. Green squares mean the letters are in the word of the day and in the same spot as in the guess. Yellow squares mean the letters are in the word of the day, but not in the same spot as in the guess. Gray squares mean the letters are not in the word of the day at all.
As a Filipino, I was even more intrigued—and, admittedly, a lot more intimidated—when I heard of Saltong, which is essentially Wordle but for Filipino words.“Saltong is heavily inspired by Wordle, something I made sure is very clear in the website too—even the name,” Carl de Guia, a 26-year-old software engineer based in Cainta, Rizal, and the creator of Saltong, told VICE.“I assumed that Wordle is just a portmanteau of ‘word’ and ‘riddle,’ and I thought it would be funny if someone made a Filipino version and named it Saltong, which is ‘salita’ (word) and ‘bugtong’ (riddle) combined.” Wordle is reportedly a play on the last name of its creator, Josh Wardle. But I like De Guia’s assumption anyway.De Guia said that he wasn’t always a fan of word games, but being “stuck at home these past two years” led him to get into the New York Times’ crossword puzzles and its other word games. Before Saltong, De Guia created a game where teams aim to conquer the most tiles in a map by solving coding puzzles—he described it as a combination of Civilization, Warcraft, and computer science homework—as well as an online bridge card game that his college friends played between classes.
He launched Saltong through a tweet on January 14. His Twitter is set to private, so he really only shared it with his friends, not thinking anyone else would play it, too. “I didn’t expect this to blow up at all. I was expecting that my friends would just play it over the weekend and forget about it, but now there are around 30,000 active users playing the game,” De Guia said.
I’m happy to report that I am one of the 30,000 people, according to de Guia, who play Saltong. I’m not happy to report that I’m not very good at it.Even with the same green, yellow, and gray squares, some players on Twitter have said that Saltong is more difficult than Wordle. One user made the comparison alongside a poignant assessment of Filipinos, the people, and Filipino, the language: “If Wordle feels too easy, try Saltong. It's like Wordle, but in the language we say we speak but not really.”The language of Saltong is Filipino, a standardized version of Tagalog, which is only one of over a hundred languages and dialects in the Philippines. Many Filipinos speak more than one of these languages and dialects in varying degrees of fluency. Many can get by speaking Filipino conversationally, but fewer can speak or write in it formally. In practice, this blurs the line between what words are Filipino and what are not.
Complicating things is the Philippines’ long history of colonization—three centuries under Spanish rule and half a century as an American possession. This means the Filipino lexicon is replete with Spanish and English words spelled according to how Filipinos pronounce them.On my first attempt at Saltong, it took me five tries—one away from losing—to get the word, “arnis,” a Filipino martial art that is called the same name in English. Therein lies one reason Saltong might be more difficult than its English counterpart—some Filipino words are exactly the same as their English translations, so that’s something bilingual people have to keep in mind.But some Filipino words are only a little bit like their English translations, which is to say they sound the same but are spelled completely differently. Recalling this would have saved me from my first loss.
Saltong also comes in Saltong Mini, where players guess four-letter words instead of the regular five. I started with “puti” (white). All squares returned gray, which meant that none of the letters in the words I typed were in the correct word of the day. I keyed “lago” (growth), and again got only gray squares. With only one vowel, E, left, and the knowledge that double Es don’t normally appear in Filipino words, I was stumped. In desperation, I typed random words, even if I didn’t think they were actually Filipino—“eden” and “serb.” At that point, I was just happy the words were actually words, so I could lose quicker and find out what the word of the day was. My sixth and final guess before losing was “meme.”
The word of the day? “Keyk,” which means, you guessed it, cake.I also tried Saltong Max, which uses seven-letter words. But let’s not talk about how that went down.A friend of mine, a Filipino who speaks Filipino and English and is an avid fan of Wordle, said she tried Saltong once, and never again. “My word was ‘salmo,’ and I don’t even know what that is,” she said. It’s the Filipino translation of “psalm.” De Guia acknowledged that frustrations over the word list are some of the most common negative reactions he sees about the game. He explained that he got the list from a Filipino dictionary website, and that its list is “not that complete.” That’s another reason Saltong may be more difficult than Wordle—we don’t exactly know what its word source considers Filipino words.Players can blame their losses on whatever they want. But I blame my own incompetency in a language I speak, “but not really.” Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.