Book review: The Language Lover's Puzzle Book

It's not often that I review a book in the same week that it comes into my house, but I'm happy to go directly to recommending this one. It's The Language Lover's Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos. You can probably think of someone who needs a present for these "Oh my god it's getting dark early and the world is full of germs" times. This is it!

Alex Bellos writes a puzzle column for the Guardian and has written a few other puzzle books, with mathematical puzzles a particular special(i)ty (among other things he writes). For this book, he has mined the riches of the Linguistic Olympiad movement, a great program(me) through which secondary school teams compete nationally and internationally on linguistic problems. One thing I love about the book is how responsible Bellos is in giving credit where credit is due.

The puzzles are of many types. There are straightforward vocabulary quizzes, some word games that you might have seen in newspapers (like word chains and crosswords), and the kinds of problems that get assigned in linguistics classes. Some are about English and many are about other languages. His website lists the following:


Armenian, Babylonian, Breton, Burmese, Chalcatongo Mixtec, Chinese, Dothraki, Dutch, Esperanto, Faroese, German, Georgian, Hawaiian, Hindi, Italian, Kwak’wala, Latin, Limburgish, Maltese, Manx, Maori, Navajo, Nuku Hiva, Oscan, Quechua, Sami, Samoan, Sumerian, Swahili, Tajik, Tok Pisin, Toki Pona, Twi, Warlpiri.

And not forgetting: Blazon, Blissymbolics, Braille, Old Norse runes, Lovers’ Communication System, N’ko, Ogham, Pig Latin, Stenography, Transcendental Algebra and Visible Speech.

The book has been our after-dinner entertainment for four nights now. I'm not any better than the rest of the family at the vocabulary quizzes, whose questions play to a range of different strengths among our family. The 12-year-old is loving the puzzles. (She also loves doing homework I set for my students. She might have something of an advantage over the average 12-year-old.) The puzzles tickle my brain in nice ways too, though if it were a race between me and the rest of the family, I'd be trouncing them. I just keep that knowledge in my back pocket and keep my mouth shut till the kid has found the solution. Ah, the sacrifices of parenthood. 

Here are a couple of examples. Puzzle 1 asks you to come up with grammatical English sentences in which these two-word strings occur with no punctuation separating them. 

  1. could to
  2. he have
  3. that that
  4. the John
  5. that than

(The order of problems usually doesn't go from easier-to-harder. I like that. I'd say 'could to' is much more challenging than some of the others.)

Later in the book you get this puzzle, which I'm not going to try to re-type:


As well as providing puzzles, Bellos gives background about the languages, linguistic and related fields. You're not just solving puzzles. You're learning a lot. Such fun.

The book is out in the UK on the 5th of November (remember, remember), but if you plan to buy it, pre-order it! Pre-ordering is an especially kind thing you can do for authors, as (in a kind of perverse way) pre-order numbers often determine which books get reviewed. Pre-ordering from a local bookshop is a nice thing you can do for all of us who want bookshops to survive the nasty times.

I'm afraid I don't know whether it will be published in North America.

About my book reviews

I receive some free books because of this blog, including this one. Thanks to Alex (whom I've never met) and the publisher for this one. These days, I choose to only review the ones I like, as I don't see the point of giving negative attention to others' work. If I don't like the book, I just don't mention it. So, please believe that I would have liked this book even if I'd paid for it. I am off to pre-order some for Christmas!


  1. My money's on Argentina and Portugal, though I'd have a hard time justifying my opinion.

  2. In that Georgian question, I think ურუგჳაი urugwai is an error for ურუგვაი urugvai. As far as I know the letter ჳ "w" isn't used in modern Georgian, and "ურუგჳაი" only returns a single result on Google. Still, it doesn't have any bearing on the puzzle.

    Grhm: You're right about one but not the other. Note that კ is not the same letter as პ.

    1. Is it Argentina and Bolivia?

  3. The first one of Puzzle 1 seemed easy to me: "He did what he could to help."

  4. Or "He could have gone to the supermarket." As for no 4, it depends on whether you are using "John" in the American sense or as a given name!

    1. If you're using it to mean 'toilet', it does not have a capital J.

    2. Then how about: "His full name was Matthew John Brown - the John was after his maternal grandfather".

  5. I'm sure I've used "that that" often in my own writing in e-mails and the like. "It was that that solved the problem" works.

    And as to "the John", "He worked at the John Smith's brewery."

  6. The John Hancock who signed the Declaration of Independence is not the same person as the John Hancock who wrote the book. Would he have written the book had he known that that subject was unpopular? In any case, it is better to write that than to write pornography, and he had to do what he could to make a living.

    1. Excellent! May I assume, because you inserted John Hancock into your solution, that you're American? (Fingers crossed.)

    2. Yes, I am. He just happened to be the first John who came to mind.

  7. I know the first country is Argentina. Is the second Columbia? I can't think of any other country with --lu-bi-.

  8. Yes, I made it Argentina and Columbia, though I couldn't replace three of the letters (I didn't write out the English alphabet and try to eliminate). 2 - he have - two seconds; 3 - that that - ten seconds. Still contemplating the rest. I presume the American slang meanings of John don't capitalise.

  9. Aarrgh! How can I edit my comments? I got 4 - the John - as soon as I looked at it again! Frustrating! Or am I being too competitive?

  10. The casualty was taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital OR The book is in the John Rylands Library.

  11. My answer to "could to" was basically the same as Jonathan's, but now I wonder whether it's grammatical in BrE. Is there a "do" required there?


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)