Why even terrible spellers love the spelling bee
I'm a horrible speller. But that's why I love the spelling bee.
I have always been an a-t-r-o-c-i-o-u-s speller.
That made the half-hour drive to elementary school, when my father would hold in one hand the despised, coffee-stained piece of paper containing the 10 words I had to memorize for that week, one of my most miserable childhood rituals. "Embarrassment," he would prompt. "I felt embarrassment when our dog barked at the neighbors."
A sigh. "We'll put that on the 'keep working' list."
Unlike most students, I dreaded Fridays, because we'd have our weekly quizzes. I often got scolded by my teacher for missing three or more words on the list by the time the ordeal was all over. "'I' before 'E,' except after 'C,'" I was patiently instructed over and over again. "If a vowel says its name, there is a silent 'E' at the end."
And then it would all begin again the following Monday.
The irony was, as dismal as I was at spelling, my two favorite subjects were reading and writing. In preschool, my teacher told my parents to encourage me to write for "the joy of it," and to refrain from correcting how I spelled the words. "Let her make it all up," Mrs. Ralph urged, leading to abundant construction-paper tomes filled with complicated universes of sounded-out words, all of which were completely unintelligible to anyone trying to read them but me.
Mrs. Ralph, as it turned out, was ahead of her time. These days, many students aren't burdened with flashcards, vocabulary lists, and dreaded Friday afternoon spelling quizzes. "Spelling as a standalone subject has basically disappeared," The Philadelphia Tribune writes. "Some teachers spend time teaching spelling while others do not. Where spelling is emphasized, it is a component of reading programs or other language arts subjects. Many school districts believe that students learn to spell through daily reading and writing."
Still, spelling is as important as it's ever been. While the invention of computers and autocorrect might make it seem less necessary to know the proper sequences of letters, linguists caution that isn't true.
"People don't learn to spell from autocorrect and it doesn't help you when you have two spellings, a homophone, like need and knead, or grammatical issues like its and it's with an apostrophe," Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the school of information at UC Berkeley, told USA Today.
To be fair, English is ridiculously difficult to learn. Why isn't "counsel" spelled "councel," after all?
Compared to students of European languages, who need a year or less to master the basics of reading and writing, English-speaking students usually require at least three years to get a grasp on the building-blocks of literacy, a study found. "There's no systematic way to learn to read or write modern English — people have to memorize the spelling of thousands of individual words, file them away in their mental databases, and retrieve them when needed," The Atlantic explains. "A small percentage of people excel at this skill, but for most children in English-speaking countries, learning to read and write their native language is a laborious and time-consuming exercise."
All of which brings me to the spelling bee. I love, love, love the spelling bee. Really, who doesn't?
Spelling bees are a distinctly American tradition. Even as the tradition of being drilled in front of your classmates on how to spell "couldn't" and "sailor" vanishes from curriculums, the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee harkens back to a time when there was a certain glory to properly sounding out "gladiolus" in front of a crowd (that being the winning word for Frank Neuhauser, who was the first Scripps champion at the age of 11 in 1925).
"These are words that no one knows," explained Nunberg, the linguist who spoke with USA Today. "They are words that many people have never seen in their lives and no one needs to spell."
And yet, every year I am glued to ESPN as pint-sized spellers knock out "Ouagadougou," "thonnier," and "dehnstufe" like they're "c-o-r-r-e-c-t" or "p-l-e-a-s-e." This year, the competition will host its youngest competitor ever — a 5-year-old from Tulsa — who qualified by spelling words like "sevruga," "Nisei," "virgule," and "alim."
Perhaps it's this ogle-factor that has earned the Scripps National Spelling Bee the criticism of being something of a "freak show," with Sameer Pandya writing for The Atlantic that "the particular cruelty of the spelling bee has been to take kids in their most awkward preteen years and then air them on national TV for our enjoyment."
I disagree. Viral videos of kids being ebullient winners, stoic losers, or hilariously boastful champions is less a vicious exploitation of prepubescent geekiness than it is a delight in the amplification of emotions that we've been taught to suppress in adulthood. When Nihar Saireddy Janga, for example, mockingly clapped for his opponent last year after the rival failed to spell a word correctly, we recognize our own unexpressed urges, on occasion, to stick our tongue out at a bested rival and go neener neener neener!
As for me, despite making my living as a professional writer, I never did get much better at spelling. I still spend an e-m-b-a-r-r-a-s-s-i-n-g amount of time scrambling to look up where the I and E go in a word. And when I watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee, to this day I can feel the noxious thrill of those Friday afternoon spelling quizzes that haunted me in elementary school.
But as queasy as those memories make me, I'm also completely spellbound. Dr. Jacques Bailly, who has been the official announcer of the spelling bee for more than a decade, hits the nail on the head when he says: "You root for everybody." Sure, you might have your favorites when the contest starts (let's go, Edith!), but when each tiny, individual competitor steps up to the mic for their word, it is as tense a moment as an overtime shot on goal or a bases-loaded at-bat in extra innings.
As you follow each consonant or vowel colored in onscreen at home, the correct spelling revealed in a karaoke-like fashion at the bottom of the TV, you are witness to a moment of impossible mastery, the culmination of a few short years of complete dedication, a celebration both quaint and timeless of this odd little language that brings us all together.
Sure, I might never know what "scherenschnitte" means, or even how to say it — and I will certainly never spell it correctly without the assistance of Google. But for a few seconds, somewhere between the C and the H and the inexplicable double-Ts, I will find myself at a complete loss for words.