June 1, 2006

The Spelling Bee.

Are you watching the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee? It's the best reality show on TV, is it not? Over at Throwing Things, they've been blogging up a storm. They're asking who are your favorites. In these parts, we love Isabel Jacobson, a Madison 7th grader, who made it to the final 45 by spelling "affenpinscher" and "tangential." Yeah, "tangential" we all know. "Affenpinscher"? It takes flights of fantasy even to imagine what that means.

Over at Throwing Things, they can't seem to say Samir Patel often enough. Pay some attention to our Isabel!

Hey, Isabel has a blog. Here. She hasn't posted since Tuesday, though. Let's not needle her about getting her blogging done, though. She's got spelling to do. Let's see what she wrote on Tuesday:
Before coming here, I was curious about what the other spellers would be like. Now I've met a few of them, and there's quite a variety. Some are as normal as anyone at my school. But some are not so normal. Quite a few are geniuses in other fields besides spelling. One boy I talked to is a nationally ranked chess champion. Another girl seemed very normal, until she revealed that she's been taking college-level math courses.

I studied for four hours the day before we left, but now that I'm actually here I haven't studied much; I feel like I'm as ready as I need to be. My main goal is to make it into the top 45 spellers, who will go on to Thursday's competition. I don't really know what my chances of this are; I've never competed at this level before, so I don't know how tough the other spellers are. I guess I'll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out.
Well, you made your goal, so is it all just for fun now? I've got to think all 45 finalists really want to win. I can't help thinking she sounds way less hardcore than most of them.

UPDATE: A quote from Theodore Yuan: "It's kind of hard to enjoy spelling, but I do it because I'm good at it."

ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, Isabel made it to 14th place and went out on the word "symminct." The prime time final rounds went very quickly, especially when it came down to Fiola Hackett and Katharine Close battling for first place. Both girls seemed to know all the words and spelled them with few questions, until Fiola paused a long and hard before making the gaffe of spelling "weltschmerz" with a "v" ... when she knew it was German! How??? It was like the boy who had to spell "giocoso" and, knowing it was Italian, began with a "j." How can you get that far and not know such basic sounds in such common languages? Do they just hit the wall and get tired, get spellschmerz? So Fiola couldn't hack it, and Katharine didn't just come close, she won ... on that word she totally knew, ursprachte!

MORE: Or was that ursprache?


Dave said...

"Are you watching the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee?"


But I can see the appeal, at least more so than American Idol.

But I still won't watch because my schedule precludes it.

Ann Althouse said...

How do people get by without TiVo?

Dave said...

Well, I have DVR so I could record it, but when I say my schedule precludes it, I mean that my schedule is such that all but four shows are banished from my TV.

Those shows are the Sopranos, Huff, Big Love, and Entourage.

Big Love is about to get the boot, tho, so maybe there will be room for another show.

tcd said...

"Affenpinscher" sounds like a breed of dog?

Filly Pundit said...

Even though I'm in Madison, I'm rooting for Samir Patel. I can't say his name enough either. I loved him back when he was an adorable 9-year old in the Bee and I hope he finally gets his win this year.

John Jenkins said...

I gave my fifth grade math book to someone when I was in college and he couldn't do some of the stuff in there, so the college level math thing doesn't surprise me at all.

SippicanCottage said...
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Andrew Foland said...

Nothing points out the silliness of English orthography like a spelling bee. In many languages, spelling bees are unnecessary because it's obvious how to spell the word.

Countless hours devoted to memorizing the spelling of words could have been used memorizing something useful like the atomic numbers of the elements or the names of ancient fossil fishes.

SippicanCottage said...
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XWL said...

Just saw Ms. Jacobson, she's wearing khaki (from the Persian word khak through Urdu) culottes (unless they are gaucho pants, is there a technical difference between the two?), does she get a pass since she's 13?

Or does that effect the good Professor's rooting interest in her fellow Madisonite?

CB said...

Affenpinscher is indeed a breed of dog. A very cute one, too, which would be expected with a name that means "monkey dog."

howzerdo said...

I was taught to read in kindergarten using i.t.a. (the initial teaching alphabet). It is a phonemic alphabet of 42 letters, first piloted in Britian in 1961. It was used in my school for the first time in 1966 with my class (the other class was the control group). We transitioned to regular spelling in second grade. As I recall, the entire class learned to read and write very quickly. A handful of us (including me) completed the transition without a problem, and were reading several grade levels above second when we finished. I've always been great at spelling (and all forms of memorization), not sure whether i.t.a. helped or at least had no negative impact on me. However, about half of the rest of the class struggled, although they eventually were successful. The remaining students had serious difficulty with reading and writing for years, even into junior high school, and I know a number of classmates who still cannot spell to this day, 40 years later. The pilot was discontinued in my school after a few years. I'd love to know their findings, but never thought about it until I was well into adulthood, too late to ask. But then in my observations of students in my college classes, a large number can't spell (even with a computer spell check feature) and I doubt they were exposed to i.t.a. When I started to wonder about the method a few years ago, I did some research and discovered that there are a number of organizations that still advocate for i.t.a or some other simplified spelling system.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Nothing points out the silliness of English orthography like a spelling bee. In many languages, spelling bees are unnecessary because it's obvious how to spell the word.

I'd like to speak in praise of modern English. It is a complex language, full of rules and exceptions, because we adopt many words from many sources without succumbing to them.

Beth said...

Poor Evan O'Dorney. He just lost to "mirliton." Before it went up on screen, I had no clue what the speaker was saying: Meer la TON, it sounded like. Evan asked for alternate pronounciations and was told there were none. Then up comes Mirliton on the screen, and I was shocked. They're ubiquitous to New Orleans backyards and grocery stores, and pronounced either mer (like myrhh) le (the schwa sound) tahn, or mehl-ee-taw (much closer to French than what I heard onscreen). I have never, ever, heard that first syllable as "meer." Poor kid. He may not have known that word, but the pronounciation given it by the speaker was anything but phonetic.

They're yummy peeled, seeded and boiled, then stuffed with shrimp, bread crumps and spices, and baked. Or sliced and sauteed with butter, salt and pepper. Some will know them as chayote.

Palladian said...

"They're yummy peeled, seeded and boiled, then stuffed with shrimp, bread crumps and spices, and baked. Or sliced and sauteed with butter, salt and pepper."

Funny, I was about to say the same thing about Affenpinschers!

Valerian said...

Check out the movie "Spellbound" if you haven't already. It's a documentary about spelling-bee prodigies.

jimbino said...

Not only are spelling bees unknown in many languages, the concept of "to spell a word" is foreign to many Latins both Spanish and Portuguease speaking) that I have met.

Ann Althouse said...

Elizabeth: I just heard the "mirliton" part (on TiVo) and I thought he gave it a very precise French pronunciation with a nasalized ending. As to the pronunciation of the first syllable, the boy spelled it correctly. He got the second "i" wrong. He got the ending correct. When they respond about alternate pronunciations, they always say "I'm showing" -- referring to what's in the dictionary, thus making it always the dictionary's fault.

To those of you who are carping (or sterleting) about the difficulty of English spelling, it's part of the richness of English, taking in so many foreign words. By not imposing a uniform English spelling, you get to see the traces of the language of origin. That's very aesthetically pleasing and informative. Don't you like that that wild Indian dog that attacks tigers is called a "dhole"? To change it to "dole" -- or dol, I guess -- would be stupid and dull and destructive of meaning and style.

Ann Althouse said...

And those are not culottes or gaucho pants. Gauchos are flared and go below the knew. Culottes are cut to look like a skirt. She's wearing knee-length shorts of the type that are currently stylish, with crisp creases and cuffs. Since she's young and slender, she looks just great.

I can understand rooting for Patel, since he's been trying so long yet is still very young, but I don't like showing so much favoritism to one player. It makes me start to root against that person. Also, I don't like when the kids are too demonstrative. Everyone seems to think he's cute jumping and slumping all over the place, but imagine if they all did that. It would be intolerable. I like the tradition of acting super-polite and holding back from being demonstrative.

Dave said...

The complexity of English spelling never bothered me.

However, I still think it's odd that sarsparilla and prerogative are spelled the way they are, given that one doesn't pronounce the first r in sarsparilla and prerogative is often pronounced "per..."

And then there's phlegm, another old favorite.

And then there are the Brits, with their kerbs and colours and lorries. Who came up with the way the Brits spell?! They're crazy.

Beth said...

Ann, I'm joshing about mirliton because for me, it's not a foreign word, but one that's common. Its local, standard pronounciation is from Cajun French, so using the formal French is funny to my ears.

It makes me think that what the bee people have on the page in front of them might well not bear close relationship to actual usage of more than a few of the words they cite, but that's the way it goes in the world of competitive spelling. I am fairly certain that this is the one time in my life I will ever hear mirliton pronounced thusly!

BJK said...

I dare someone to proof that Madison girl's blog for spelling mistakes.

Honestly, as someone who competed in a Scripps Howard regional as a child (or whatever classification is above the school level), and who has seen tapes of these things in the past (thank God for "Cheap Seats" on ESPN Classic), I find it absolutely befuddling why people would willingly sit down and watch the competition.

It's people spelling words they will never use in real life.

At least "American Idol" is entertaining....does anyone really stand in awe when a contestant spells 'intransigently' right? I'd give the narrowest of edges to paint drying or grass growing.

McKreck said...


The pleasure is in seeing people, children in this case, doing something extraordinarily well. That will always have an audience.

Beth said...

I love the way English absorbs and expands, through colonization and trade. I don't have my Cable and Baugh, "History of the English Language" handy, which is the definitive source, but wikipedia is probably accurate in reporting the OED has "301,100 main entries...157,000 combinations and derivatives...and 169,000 phrases and combinations [totaling] 616,500 word-forms." McCrum's "The Story of English" estimates about 500,000 words (more specific than word forms) in English, compared with the German vocabulary of about 185,000 and French at fewer than 100,000.

English thrives because it is flexible, voracious, and useful. When we are innovative, we're innovative in big strokes, as in air travel and computer techno
alogy, so we force everyone else to adopt our vocabulary, then we in turn re-absorb those words that result from the mergers. Viva Anglaise!

bearbee said...


Doug Sundseth said...

"khaki (from the Persian word khak through Urdu)"

The sources I've seen indicate it entered English from Hindi rather than Urdu. In any case, it originally meant something like "dust-colored" and was used for a wide variety of colors from a mid-brown to a mid-grey.

"However, I still think it's odd that sarsparilla and prerogative are spelled the way they are..."

Of course it's "sarsaparilla"*. 8-)

I'd say they're no worse than, say, "February" and "comfortable" (at least in many dialects of American English).

* Spelling and etymological notes seem more reasonable here than in most comments threads; sorry if anyone is offended.

SippicanCottage said...
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David53 said...

Size being equal, my two zwergpinschers would totally dominate any two affenpinschers on the planet.

Beth said...

My dachshund will grab all the snacks while the zwergs and affens rumble.

Dave said...

Doug: I attribute my misspelling of sarsaparilla to the keyboard, not my spelling prowess.

Clearly, the keyboard is trying to undermine my point.

See, not only are we Americans good spellers but we also are good at coming up with excuses.

archshrk said...

I'm not watching it.
I'm protesting because of how much the event messes up the local traffic around here.

What with all the looky-loos and the t-shirt sellers and dictionaries of the stars...

[end sarcasm] It is a popular story on the news but can only hold my attention for a few seconds. Still impressive.

Wickedpinto said...

The Boss UPDATE: A quote from Theodore Yuan: "It's kind of hard to enjoy spelling, but I do it because I'm good at it."

I had a Plt Sgt, who would say the same thing about EVERYTHING! "nothing is fun till you're good at it, if you're happy with being bad at something, then you are a loser." is what he would actually say.

On the same line of thought, when I would talk about electronics, back when I could remember everything I had learned about it, I would say "it's easy once you understand it" and my roommate would say "well no S@#$ dips@#%"

Mom said...

I was in the Scripps-Howard spelling bee twice, long years ago. I didn't get very far either time. I still remember the words that did me in: "unconscionable" the first time, and "toxolophile" the second time. I have never heard the word "toxolophile" again since that day (it means someone who loves archery) but when I hear "unconscionable," it always reminds me of that dratted bee.

amba said...

The lesson of this spelling bee is that not enough people study German any more.

I was really surprised that Finola, the Canadian girl, spelled so many obscure words right and then did not get "Weltschmerz," which must appear in the papers once a week.

Peter Hoh said...

Amba, watch the movie "Spellbound," and you'll see an Indian-American kid flummoxed by "Darjeeling." At least that's my recollection.

Elizabeth, on the topic of dictionaries, I had the delight of leafing through Hobson-Jobson while in India. Upon my return to the States, I had to search high and low for it. Now it's available online. For word nuts, it's worth looking into.

Anonymous said...

"Before coming here, I was curious about what the other spellers would be like. Now I've met a few of them, and there's quite a variety. Some are as normal as anyone at my school. But some are not so normal."

Good God, that's funny. I'm might watch this show. They should pay you, Ann.

XWL said...

The final word was ursprache (no T), we are talking about a spellng bee, normally I wouldn't bother correcting the spelling of an obscure word, but given the thread, how can I resist?

(and thanks for the instruction regarding the differences between culottes, gaucho pants, and shorts, I'm mostly clueless as to what makes one item one thing, and another, another)

Now excuse me while I ride the Kundalini Express

(given my love for Love and Rockets when I was the age of those spellers, that's one word I would have had no problem with)

And finally, USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!

(I'll take someone from New Jersey winning over someone from Alberta)

(and as far as Khaki, I stole the probably wrong etymology in my earlier post from Wikipedia)

michael farris said...


your experience with the ITA sounds a lot like the experience of any other group of English speaking kids learning to spell. Some whiz through it, some have a rocky transition and some never get it.

English spelling is most appealling to those who are visually oriented who can take in and internalize visual information without having to relate it to anything else. More audio or kinesthetic learners have a harder time with it and a significant minority never come to terms with it.

I prefer learning by doing and hearing instead of seeing but fortunately I was taught to read and write with a phonics based approach. Had I been in any kind of whole language cirriculum I'd have probably been classified as having a learning disorder.

As a linguist I think the virtues of etymological spelling are overrated. Yes, the ph's in photograph let a philologist (who should know anyway) that the roots were borrowed from Greek, to the overwhelming majority of active users it's a needless complication, fotograf pleases me more as there's greater harmony between the written and spoken forms. ymmv

I also think that about 80 % of major spelling problems could be eliminated by a very small set of painless changes affecting maybe 5 % of everyday vocabulary. But the people who decide about these things are usually the ones who had no problems and perceive no need to help those who do (beyond vague ideas of improving teaching).

michael farris said...

And if we're going to preserve foreign spellings, we really should write Weltschmerz and Ursprache. Capitalization people!

bearbee said...

One favorite dictionary is Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words:


knox said...

How do people get by without TiVo?

It SUCKS! I am not being sarcastic. I can't wait til I can afford to get dvr.

"Spellbound" is a really fun movie, and it's very "feel good" in a genuine way. This, too, is a must-see:


sorry such a long link, but it's worth the trouble to copy and paste it in your browser.

Ann Althouse said...

It tend to think everyone who wants to see "Spellbound" has already seen it. Personally, I think the live spelling bee is much better than the movie, which doesn't have enough bee. It's like instead of watching the Olympics, watching endless "up close and personal" segments. Anyway, the Hitchcock movie "Spellbound" is awfully good. Oh no! Parallel lines!!! Hmmm.... I was once in a grade school spelling bee where no one could spell "parallel." Just remember the parallel lines, the Ls.

knox said...

Oh no! Parallel lines!!!

LOL! Gotta love the dream sequence. And that young Gregory Peck. me-ow!

The best part about Spellbound (the bee one) is that lovably spazzy kid going: "DO. I. SOUND. LIKE. A. MUSICAL. ROBOT?" in that bizarro sing-song.

SippicanCottage said...
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amba said...

It was definitely SPELLSCHMERZ!! LOL, great coinage! They both looked like they just finally hit the wall with stress. and couldn't think it through. That should go into bee-lingo . . .

I love the Anglo-Saxon, variously silent "OUGH" stuck in the middle of so many English words. It's like the rich cloddy earth of a ploughed-up furrow (furrough?). It's an initiation rite for phonetically naïve immigrants.

amba said...

Is there a word for immigrants into a language? Because of course there are (hundreds of) millions of people who come into English without physical coming into America or England, at least not right away. If there isn't a word, can we coin one?

SippicanCottage said...
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michael farris said...

"I believe the capitalization of nouns in German wouldn't affect spelling in English."

But that's valuable etymological information. But then I'd be just as happy anglicising the words to weltshmerts and ursprock (and (including modifying the pronuncation away from German) but mine is a minority opinion (as it is on so many issues).

"Isn't capitalization grammar or usage, not orthography?"

grammar - structure of a language (including word forms and word order and some other stuff)

orthography - how people choose to write a specific language (which may vary in specific situations)

usage - speaker (collective, usually unconscious) preferences in areas of vocabulary and grammar, especially in cases where there's more than one alternative

so, capitalization practices are examples of usage as applied to orthography (IMHO, some traditional grammarians would probably disagree)

jimbino said...


Ann Althouse said...

We only capitalize proper nouns (and "I")(and a proper noun would not be permitted into a spelling bee, right?). It's just not our convention to capitalize ordinary nouns, but it is our convention to preserve the spelling that reflects the language of origin. We do that inconsistently, I say, noting my own last name as an example. A real test for me is my own name, because if given the choice between Althouse, Althaus, and Oldhouse, I would definitely pick Oldhouse -- it is more evocative. But this shows that I'm not for ease of spelling. I'm for depth of meaning.

bearing said...

Ann asks:

until Fiola paused a long and hard before making the gaffe of spelling "weltschmerz" with a "v" ... when she knew it was German! How???

I can offer a guess. When I was in eighth grade and competing at our regional spelling bee (two levels above school), I lost on "aktograph," spelling it with a "c" even though I was pretty sure it was Greek and should be spelled with a "k".

Why? I'd never heard the word before, and I (stupidly) thought that people would think less of me if I spelled "actograph" as "aktograph," but would think it understandable if I spelled "aktograph" as "actograph."

(If I'd had the guts to ask for the etymology, I wouldn't have missed it. But I was afraid to, because I was intimidated by the guy who read the words. He rolled his eyes and gave deep impatient sighs every time one of the kids asked for any kind of clarification.)

Ken said...

I love that you blogged the spelling bee! I've followed your postings on American Idol and always checked in after the shows.

Plus, you have a great variety of posts, I'd say you're quirky...is that even a word?

Ruth Anne Adams said...

The weirdest word I've never seen used:

It's often spelled "h". Perhaps I should start using it.

"I told him to get the aitch outta' there."