Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Sport For Linguists: The Scripps National Spelling Bee

This past Thursday night, a champion was crowned. After two days of competition, a 13-year-old boy named Arvind Mahankali became the latest winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling knaidel, a Yiddish term of German origin that means "dumpling". He went home with $30,000 cash, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond, a "complete reference library" from Merriam-Webster, and $2,000 worth of reference works from Encyclopædia Brittanica. Oh, and a big golden engraved trophy! Did we mention that this was all broadcast live on ESPN, the top sports channel in the United States?

It's a bee... geddit?
If you're from another country, you probably think all of this sounds ridiculous. However, there are good motivations behind at least some of this insanity. Unlike some languages (like Spanish), the English language is not phonetic in much of its spelling. We're sure it has quite a bit to do with it being a Germanic language, yet having a lexicon that is mainly derived from Latin roots, often via French. Nearly everyone who natively speaks or learns the English language bemoans the irregularity of its spellings at some point. We could give endless examples, but knight, rough, chord, and sign ought to suffice.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been around since 1925. The term bee is an old-fashioned word that is used to describe a gathering for a specific purpose, or in this case, a competition. Spelling bees are particularly popular in the U.S. as a form of motivating children to learn correct English spelling. Most American children have participated in one at some point, if only as a classroom exercise. I remember very little about my childhood experiences in spelling bees at my primary school, but I do remember that it was the evil word cough that eliminated me from competition during my best performance. 

Don't worry, bee happy!
After undoubtedly spending much of his free time over the past few years studying the dictionary (he finished in third place the past two years), Arvind had to make it through two days of spelling in order to become the champion. Contestants were surprised weeks before this year's competition to find out that they'd also have to pass some vocabulary questions in the early rounds, a new addition perhaps added to quell long-standing criticisms that the spelling bee merely demonstrates memorization skills without any real benefit to the children involved. That's an issue for another day, however.

Our main criticism of the bee is about the word list. When you look at the list of words Arvind had to spell throughout the national competition, the only word we've ever heard before (and we believe we have an above average vocabulary) is the first he was asked to spell: euphemism. This group of 8 to 14-year-old children was asked to spell words like dehnstufe, trichocercous, and chalumeau. Assuming they learn many of the definitions, we'd love to know what kind of books they're reading in their free time... besides the dictionary, of course!