11 Sep 2015

International Linguistics Olympiad

Have you heard about the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL)? If not, you’re not alone. A lot of students haven’t heard about this Olympiad, and that’s a pity — they’re missing out on an exciting opportunity.

Most people have heard about the International Olympiads in Physics, Chemistry and even Informatics (a.k.a. Programming). These are some of the the “International Science Olympiads”, and are recognized by colleges and teachers across the globe as the penultimate academic high school competitions. If you win a medal in one of these competitions, you’re considered the cream — the very highest outstanding achievement you could get.

[By the way, the olympiads that you write in school — NCO, NSO, IMO and IEO — are not truly international olympiads. They are actually competitive exams that are mostly restricted to India.]

The Linguistics Olympiad is one of the “International Science Olympiads”. Over 30 countries from across the globe send teams of their brightest high school students to solve challenging puzzles in Linguistics.

I’ve been to the Linguistics Olympiad. I went to Bulgaria in July 2015 as part of Team India. I forged new friendships, experienced new cultures, won an Honorable Mention and generally had a great time.

When I tell people about my experience, the first question I’m asked is, “How many languages do you know?”
That’s the thing: You don’t need to know multiple languages. ALL YOU NEED IS LOGIC!

That’s right. If you liked the logic puzzles posted on the Google+ site, then you’ll definitely enjoy solving Linguistics puzzles.

Here’s a sample.
And don’t be lazy. Spend some time on this and give it a try! (In fact, if you can, print this image out. At the very least, grab some rough sheets and write down your thoughts!)

Click the image to enlarge.

First off: Most of you don’t know Swahili. And that’s the point — no one’s supposed to be at an advantage here.

Let’s look at this problem analytically. If you haven’t printed it out, make sure you keep looking back at the question while reading my answer. You won’t understand it otherwise!
  • tarehe is repeating in every single Swahili date. It probably means “date” in English.

  • Disemba”, “Oktoba” and “Aprili” sound suspiciously like English months. In this case, they definitely are. You can check by counting the number of times each Swahili month appears, and comparing that with the number of times each English month appear.

  • Look at the English dates (B) and (D). They’re exactly the same, except for the number (2nd and 4th). The two Swahili translations should also be exactly identical except for those two numbers. Look at Swahili dates (3) and (5). They are identical except for the second words (“pili” and “nne”). Now we know that “Jumanne” means “Tuesday”. We also now know that the format for writing Swahili dates is:

tarehe” <number> <month> <day>

  • With this new information, compare (1) and (F). “tatu” is the number ‘3’. Make a list of all the Swahili number names, and try to find other correspondences. For instance, from (2), (4), (6) and (A), (C), (E), you can translate “tano” as the number ‘5’.

  • Did you notice that the day names in Swahili also appear to have the names for numbers? “Jumatatu”, “Jumatano”, “Jumapili”, “Jumanne”.
    We can guess that in Swahili, the days of the week are numbered (Day 1, Day 2… etc).

  • We know “tatu” means ‘3’. That means “Jumatatu” is “Day 3”. Look at sentence (4). “Day 3” could be either “Monday”, “Wednesday” or “Sunday”. (Those are the days in the English dates containing “October”.)
    Let’s assume that “Day 3” in (4) is “Wednesday”. Then, from sentence (6), “Jumatano” means “Day 5”, which should be “Friday”. However, none of (A), (C) and (E) contain the day “Friday”. That means the assumption is wrong.
    Try assuming “Sunday” as “Day 3”. Can you find out where this assumption goes wrong?
    Now try assuming “Monday” as “Day 3”. Does it work?

  •  If “Day 3” is “Monday”, then “Day 1” is “Saturday”. This means that the Swahili week begins on Saturday. (In contrast, we generally think of Sunday as the beginning of the week.)

  • From the translations of days and numbers you can work out all the other translations, match the dates, and complete the question.

To be fair, these problems aren’t exactly easy to solve. This problem, for example, would take anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour to solve.

However, no one said an International Olympiad was going to be easy. The actual IOL consists of 5 questions to be solved in 6 hours. Yes, 6 hours.

Interested in giving it a try? I strongly recommend that you do. To get selected, here’s what you have to do.
  • Write the Panini Linguistics Olympiad. It’s the national round of the Olympiad.
  • Be one of the 30 or so students from all over the country selected from that exam to attend a Training Camp. It’s sponsored by Microsoft and Xerox!
  • Be one of the top 8 (or 12) students in the camp!
For information about the IOL and past contests, visit: http://ioling.org/

The only way to get better at this is with some practice. If you’d like to solve some more questions on your own, start here: https://sites.google.com/site/paninilinguisticsolympiad/Resources/the-panini-junior-linguistics-olympiad

Do you dare to try some of the most challenging Linguistics puzzles ever designed? Choose from the past IOL problems over here: http://www.ioling.org/problems/

If you ever have any questions, or would like me to explain how to go about solving some question, feel free to email me, or post on Google+. I’ll make sure that all my answers are made available to everyone.

Finally, whether you plan to pursue this Olympiad or not, don’t keep this post to yourself. At the very least, let your friends know that something called the “Linguistics Olympiad” really exists, and send them the link to this blog post.


  1. Thanks for this post, Sesh!

    Unfortunately, I read this post too late for me to participate in PLO 2016. But I shall definitely be signing up for PLO 2017.

    Can I contact you on Facebook in case I have any questions?

    Thanks once again

  2. Very Interesting information shared on Linguistic Olympiad Exam. Thanks for the insights and experience compiled and posted. Good Luck!