Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 2, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CALL THE MINUTEMEN!....Andy Rotherham makes a pithy remark about Thursday's spelling bee finale:

Thank God For Katherine Close
She's the kid who beat back the Canadian menace to win the National Spelling Bee last night. I just don't think I could have listened to weeks of conservative belly-aching about how an American kid couldn't win our own spelling bee and the corresponding complaints about our public schools without losing my mind.

Good point. Though it's undermined a bit by the unending stream of foreign words on the show, including the eventual winner, ursprache, which my dictionary labels as "not completely naturalized." If we can't even make English the official language of the National Spelling Bee, what hope do we have for the rest of the country?

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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Comments

It's amazing how liberals can't even let a spelling bee pass without politicizing it. I especially like how y'all are criticizing the hypothetical reactions of conservatives from an alternate universe.

Posted by: American Hawk on June 2, 2006 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

To be fair, the runner up couldn't spell the good old American word weltschmerz (or is it Weltschmerz?).

Posted by: B on June 2, 2006 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Ursprache? That's quite a reach. I'm always suprised by the bizarre vocabulary that the maniacal overlords of spelling bees unearth.

I've heard the word, "ursprache," before in the course of studying linguistics, but neither my teachers nor any fellow students have used it, only a few odd books. Otherwise, "protolanguage," is far more preferred. Earlier stages of linguistics were heavily influenced by German scholars, leaving linguistics peppered with German phrases (such as, "sprachbund"), but Latinate or Greek-derived words tend to be more common in the literature, especially more recent books.

Posted by: Paul A. Brmmer on June 2, 2006 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Finally a wingnut admits that conservatives are from an alternative universe.

Now, how much is it going to take to get you to go home?

Posted by: Disputo on June 2, 2006 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

The Canadian girl got a pass on "douane." That word is on all the signs at airports north of the border. She deserved weltschmerz.

The Scripps Howard event is becoming the World Series of spelling words in English, so international words are "a propos."

Curious, but you don't hear about Americans competing in Canadian spelling bees, eh?

Posted by: pj in jesusland on June 2, 2006 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Paul has it pretty well right above. ursprache means original language.

Posted by: SteveAudio on June 2, 2006 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah - they should onyl use words from the King James Bible!

Posted by: Mark L. on June 2, 2006 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

I was deeply disappointed that the vast majority of the words seemed to be non-standard English. (The one that threw me was "Mithraeum" which I would have spelled just as the boy who got it wrong spelled it: "Mithrium.") In any case, the fact that so many of the words were actually foreign words means that there are potentially reasonable alternative spellings, as phonetic spellings of words from languages that do not use the roman alphabet are commonplace.

I enjoyed the fact that, speaking German myself, words like "Heiligenschein," "Weltschmerz," and "Ursprache" played such a prominent role, but, let's face it, they are not English.

Posted by: Baldrick on June 2, 2006 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

But isn't she a lesbian? Where's the 'menace' when you need one?
Should provide some conservative sport belly-aching.

Hell in a handbasket - am I right AHawk?

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on June 2, 2006 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Not just the King James Bible--I'd love to see them use some words from the "Shakespearian Insult Kit".
But that would involve too much chutzpah....

Posted by: bill h. on June 2, 2006 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

I thought the relief was going to be that a non-Indian girl won the spelling bee.

Posted by: Elrod on June 2, 2006 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Thank god it wasn't one of those Indian kids.

Posted by: BTD_Venkat on June 2, 2006 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Then again, spelling contests are a joke. What sort of intelligence do they measure? What kind of creativity or skill do they involve? What's the point?

We get so much overkill of these meaningless memorization spectacles because it's all that today's reporters are able to understand. You don't see much coverage of science fair winners - and when you do, it's largely to sneer at the geeks and their incomprehensible geek stuff. You don't see much coverage of the current web of Republican K-Street-driven corruption, because it's - duh - complicated. Might take diagrams to explain, and who can figure them? Not Joe Journalist.

Don't get me started on the treatment of Al Gore, which continues to this day, even when his new movie, An Inconvenient Truth, is slaying them all over the country.

Spelling "bees"? Give me a break. They're part of the breakdown of American journalism. Press the "spelchek" button and get over it.

Posted by: Zandru on June 2, 2006 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Huh. I would've figured the hypothetical conservative bellyaching would be about how a home-schooled kid didn't win this year. We need a glossary on hypothetical conservative bitching so we can all be on the same page.

Posted by: Shelby on June 2, 2006 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

On a serious note: North American Union Already Starting to Replace USA

Check out spp.gov and see what those who support illegal immigration (like Kevin Drum) ultimately support.

-- Immigration reform

Posted by: TLB on June 2, 2006 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I suggest that the US establish an institution dedicated to the defense of American English! Or would that be too... French?

Posted by: Todd on June 2, 2006 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Todd:I suggest that the US establish an institution dedicated to the defense of American English! Or would that be too... French?

Nice one. You'd be able to cut the irony with a cheese knife if that happened.

Posted by: cyntax on June 2, 2006 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

I was actually kind of impressed by how many words of Persian, Hindi/Sanskrit and Hebrew origin there were. If training for a spelling bee is now the new cool thing for school age kids to do, maybe American kids might actually learn something about world geography and other cultures.

Posted by: LisainVan on June 2, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Are you kidding me?
I watched the last 3, and they were spelling words I didn't even know existed.
Lets give credit where credit is due. She beat her Canadian counterpart because she "knew" the words. I could tell by the smug smirk she had with the last two words.
Brilliant, a credit to us all...now if only the Bush had that kind of knowledge and self-discipline.
Oh yeah, thats right, he eschews "smart" people, I guess Laura will have to dirty her hands by greeting the brainiac.

Posted by: sheerahkahn on June 2, 2006 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Is there such a thing as a definition bee or an etymology bee or a synonym bee? That would be more interesting, I think.

Posted by: RSA on June 2, 2006 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

I just wonder if she was asked to spell "Yrspreck" or "Oorshpraac-h".

Posted by: ogmb on June 2, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

More hypothetical conservative reactions here. Homosexualssprache?

Posted by: B on June 2, 2006 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

B: LOL

My favorite quote was: "Our position is that if you're going to spell in this country you ought to be spelling words that are native to our language," says Martin DuCasse, a spokesperson for the Arlington, VA, nonprofit.

Despite my comments above, I don't particularly believe that spelling bees are an appropriate arena for government intervention. Perhaps, though, I underestimate the proponents of taking legislative action. It stands to reason that, if the Republican Congress is going to spend its time regulating spelling bees, there are a lot of important issues that they will not have time to fuck up.

Posted by: Baldrick on June 2, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

...after contestant David Keyes of Watkins Glenn, NY, successfully sounded out sudadero, a Spanish word meaning a blanket that soaks up the sweat beneath the saddle of a horse.

Also known, in English, as a "saddle blanket."

Posted by: Baldrick on June 2, 2006 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

The winning word isn't even on the radar of language. Looksee for yourself at
http://www.wordcount.org/main.php

So, why don't they just turn that event into a "Hooked On Phonics" game and just making words up?

Posted by: SoCalAnon on June 2, 2006 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

>It's amazing how liberals can't even let a spelling bee pass without politicizing it

It's amazing what an ignorant fuckhead you are:

Home schooling first showed up on the national radar screen in 1997, when 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon, all brains and awkward gestures, won the National Spelling Bee, showing a startled public that her unorthodox education must be doing something right.

Conservative creed: sucker punch decent people then cry like a baby when the turn around and bash your face in.

Posted by: doesn't matter on June 2, 2006 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

Crap forgot the link:

http://www.city-journal.org/html/10_3_an_a_for_home.html

Posted by: doesn't matter on June 2, 2006 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

The worshipping of memorization is a huge problem with the education system. Some people have the knack for it, and it suits them just fine, but for the majority, it's doing them no service.

It would be better to put up like a national debate championship, or something that relies on critical thinking over memorization and/or making educated guesses.

Posted by: Karmakin on June 2, 2006 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

Having lived a decade in Canada: I'd have thrown a few curves in that British and American spelling is different:

How 'bout: aeroplane vs airplane, color and colour, ask her lewtenant vs left-tenant (lieutentant) etc.

Seriously, the fact that kids think spelling is cool is great and can open the doors to all kinds of interesting cultural questions. One of which of course is: When a foreign word enters the language should we leave the spelling in it's original or change it to a more Anglo look? Generally in English we do the former - which is of course what makes our spelling so unbelievably difficult.

And that's in some ways the punch line - after watching "Spellbound" (great movie, BTW) it's clear that luck has a huge factor in who wins. Which kid happens to get hit with obscure words that they can competently guess at.

Ursprache is easy, if you know some German, "Ur" original, plus Sprache speach. But, doing it word by word really makes luck a huge factor.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on June 2, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Memorization, memorization, hmmmm... when was that again?

Maybe a Nat'l Electronic Simon contest? Lets identify an audio-visual pattern recall champ. I think there's an open Tues night timeslot.

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on June 2, 2006 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Gosh, in a post about spelling I mis-spelled.

Also, wanted to expand the whole topic of random chance. Overall in a lot of competitions we underrate the roll of random chance. Bill James did great work showing that statistically, people's career stats wander a lot more than you think - due to simple randomness. The NCAA tourney in basketball - one game can really be a fluke. etc.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on June 2, 2006 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

There's also the fact that having to spell a word out loud is different from spelling it on paper. I'm a very good speller when the fingers hit the keys, but I can't do it out loud at all.

Posted by: DonBoy on June 2, 2006 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

Of *course* the English (American) language has words from other languages (and we can argue about how much of that is appropriate, etc., which we're happily doing here).

But what I want to know (and which I haven't seen a good answer or even discussion of) is why the *NATIONAL* spelling bee includes kids from other countries - because "Is ursprache an English word?" is a much harder question than, "Is Canada part of the United States?"

Someone want to answer *that* one?

Posted by: Chris on June 2, 2006 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

Thank god it wasn't one of those Indian kids.

Like Christine Lombardo.

Posted by: Vladi G on June 2, 2006 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

Chris

I can't really answer your question, but the commentators last night said that Scripps recently opened the spelling bee to English speakers from around the world. Apparently this is a new development.

Posted by: Baldrick on June 2, 2006 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

'Kundalini' and 'Izzat' in an English spelling bee?

Liberal muticulturalists have gone mad.

Posted by: lib on June 2, 2006 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Umm. They use non-standard words in the finals because... THE KIDS KNOW HOW TO SPELL ALL THE STANDARD WORDS!!!

Posted by: NotThatMo on June 2, 2006 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

>> the corresponding complaints about our public schools

Ironically, many of the top spelling bee participants are home schooled.

Posted by: lutton on June 2, 2006 at 4:37 PM | PERMALINK

"Ursprache"? You've gotta be kidding me. I'm not sure the Germans even use that word. I do the NYT crossword every week and I have never seen that thing, nor ever read it in an English-language publication that I can recall.

Posted by: spaghetti happens on June 2, 2006 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

One thing about these forrrn' words: it is one thing to use words from languages that use the Roman script, but totally another thing to use a word from a language that uses a script for which there are different transliterations.

At some point the word was "NAURUZ" which the official "pronouncer" (whom I found very annoying, BTW) pronounced "now-ROOZ." Well, this ain't German/French/Latin/etc. It's Persian. And in romanized form it can be spelled Nawroz, Norooz, Noruz, Novruz, Nohruz, Nauroz, Navroze, Navroz, Nevruz or Nowrouz!!!!

Oh, and "kundalini" does not deserve status as a "champion word."

Posted by: All-knowing sage on June 2, 2006 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

Ugh. The spelling bee. Representing a triumph of rote memorisation over creative thought. Absolutely indicative of the conservative view of education.

Spelling "bees"? Give me a break. They're part of the breakdown of American journalism.

Heh. How about a National Journamalism Bee, where Adam Nagourney and Susan Schmidt compete to see how accurately they can repeat a White House press release?

Posted by: ahem on June 2, 2006 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

Ursprache, eh? Sounds like Kraut to me.

Instead of spelling bees, why can't there be history or geography bees where actual useful knowledge is learned. I hear that these kids have to memorize a list of some 20K+ words. That's really useful!

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on June 2, 2006 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

American culture's lack of recognition of high achievers in academics is quite baffling.


At least in the middle and high school at the end of every year they should have an award ceremony honoring the best and the brightest in every academic subject.

I understand that such recognition is avoided in order to prevent the supposed adverse psychological effect on those who are not quite bright. That's a bogus argument. Academic competition will mostly have a positive affect.

Posted by: nut on June 2, 2006 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

I watchd the whole afternoon's competition as my friends' kid was in the running. (She did great!) And the whole event was such a great anecdotal rebuttal of the lie that immigrants don't learn english. Tons of first generation americans up there spelling words that our politicians couldn't even pronounce. The central american kid who lives in Florida- whenever he was up his mother was so nervous, it was touching.
I used to teach ESL in Chicago, and I'll never forget my students ho often worked two factory jobs and still dragged themselves to class to learn a new language.

Posted by: dave on June 2, 2006 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and a quick defense of spelling bees. When the kids were given a word they often would ask - Is that from the greek root X? These kids don't just memorize but have to have an understanding of how English words come into existence, as well as the dynamics of how other languages work. The bizarrely constructed language we call English is a great hodge-podge of sanskrit, arabic, french, latin, greek, german, persian etc etc. And these kids understand that. Hurrah for a complex reading of language rather than believing that English was spoken in the garden of eden.

Posted by: dave on June 2, 2006 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

But what I want to know (and which I haven't seen a good answer or even discussion of) is why the *NATIONAL* spelling bee includes kids from other countries - because "Is ursprache an English word?" is a much harder question than, "Is Canada part of the United States?"
Someone want to answer *that* one?
Posted by: Chris on June 2, 2006 at 3:43 PM

Um, maybe its for the same reason that the professional hockey league in North America is called the National Hockey League. Or conversely, why the American baseball championship is the World Series.

And I don't want conservatives OR liberals to politicize this. I love watching kids go for a goal and exceed all reasonable expectations. Congratulations to all the competitors.

Posted by: Joe Canuck on June 2, 2006 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK
Instead of spelling bees, why can't there be history or geography bees where actual useful knowledge is learned.

The National Geographic Society sponsors a geography bee; this year's finals were about a week ago.

Posted by: eric on June 2, 2006 at 11:52 PM | PERMALINK

"I especially like how y'all are criticizing the hypothetical reactions of conservatives from an alternate universe."

"Y'all"?

If you don't learn the English language, you all will have to leave the country.


Posted by: D-Vega on June 3, 2006 at 12:52 AM | PERMALINK

I understand that such recognition is avoided in order to prevent the supposed adverse psychological effect on those who are not quite bright. That's a bogus argument. Academic competition will mostly have a positive affect.

No it's to prevent the academic achievers from being beat up.

Posted by: ogmb on June 3, 2006 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

It's "Ursprache," not "ursprache." Nouns in German are always capitalized. Get your Weltanschauung correct ;-)

Note to the question above whether "Ursprache" is actually used in Germany, I don't know the extent to which it is, but it is in my Langenscheidts (it translates to "primitive language"). I know how to pronounce it, but I do wonder whether the fellow who gave it out at the spelling bee pronounced it properly.

Posted by: raj on June 3, 2006 at 2:35 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: biu on June 3, 2006 at 5:04 AM | PERMALINK

If the "National" Spelling Bee is to be limited to U.S. citizens, then the "World" Series should be appropriately renamed.

Posted by: Daniel Kim on June 3, 2006 at 6:21 AM | PERMALINK

A Jamaican girl won it a couple of years ago ... and was immediately accused of having cheated to advance to the nationals. There was quite an uproar about it at the time.

Posted by: Hulka on June 3, 2006 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Also, the rules state that any words appearing in a particular edition of the gigantic Merriam-Webster Dictionary are fair game to be used in competition -- but the word lists *are* drawn up in advance, and there does seem to be some methodology behind them. When I was a national contestant ten+ years ago, words that were usually capitalized weren't allowed in competition; now they are.

The problem with disallowing "foreign" words is, where do you draw the line? I think this quote says it best:

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." (James D. Nicoll)

Posted by: Hulka on June 3, 2006 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Several points:

Dave above is exactly right. I competed in the spelling bee, but never did very well. A few of my friends went pretty far, and the reason they did was because they did more than memorize words. They learned a huge amount of etymology, Latin, Greek, phonology (I'm not sure that's the correct term, but basically the principles that generally govern pronounciation and spelling), etc. Plus, a lot of them relied on knowing words from doing an enormous amount of advanced reading, both fiction and non-fiction. The kids who straight memorized invariably got beat in the later stages. And let me tell you that I've konwn several former spelling bee finalists, and they are not just rote memorization machines. A lot of these kids end up at top universities and achieve great things. What drives them to do well at the spelling bee is the same thing that drives them to excel at a variety of intellectual pursuits.

Second, there are many reasons English has become the lingua franca of the world, but one of them is that many linguists believe English to have the greatest vocabulary building capacity of any language. We create new words and new terms faster than any other language, and most other languages end up adopting our vocabulary, including the vocabulary we first borrow from other languages. English can draw from virtually any linguistic tradition because of its polyglot roots.

Third, as a high school debater, it would have been interesting to see national debate tournaments televised, but I bet audiences would be shocked at how arcane and specialized the event is. A perennial concern of forensic competition was that debaters had to "play to the lay people" at national finals out of fear of scaring away the sponsors. I'm sure if debate was televised, we'd hear just as many complaints about how useless and removed from reality and practical skills the event is. Kids can talk at 600-1000 words per minute to cram in arguments, rounds are fought over a highly technical body of informal rules that have grown up in the subculture, etc.

Let's not forget Quiz Bowl, that other academic competition that was once televised and is often criticized for rewarding useless memorization. People will always have complaints about any competitive event. At the same time, people shouldn't forget that whatever the awkward social deficiencies of some portion of the competitiors in these events, very, very few of them are stupid kids. Whatever outlet they choose, most of these kids are eager and ambitious to achieve, and I think we should all admire them for their drive. They're part of that ceaseless striving that Fitzgerald said made the American dream both inspiring and terrifying.

Posted by: Ramey on June 4, 2006 at 1:59 AM | PERMALINK

the commentators last night said that Scripps recently opened the spelling bee to English speakers from around the world. Apparently this is a new development.

Posted by: Baldrick on June 2, 2006 at 4:19 PM

Does that mean, like Little League, we can expect to see English-speaking Taiwanese dominate the event for a decade or so? (I'm joking, of course, especially since I was my school's spelling champion for four consecutive years.)

Posted by: Vincent on June 4, 2006 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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