One spelling bee mystery solved


I have expressed my puzzlement with several aspects of the national spelling bee competition, especially the fact that the words have become increasingly obscure over time. (For example, in 1932, the winning word was ‘knack’!) One question in my mind is why such a pointless activity as spelling highly esoteric words has become so attractive that young children spend countless hours learning to do so and then subject themselves to sweating it out in front of cameras and large prime time TV audiences in a format that seems to revel in their agony. To win this contest requires knowing the spelling of 150,000 to 200,000 words. This is astonishing when one considers that Shakespeare used only about 33,000 words in his plays and this is considered to be close to the upper limit of most people’s vocabularies, even those who have high levels of formal education. So these competitors are learning to spell a lot of words they will never, ever use.

The other puzzling thing is why the contest is dominated by children of Indian ethnicity, especially from the southern part of that country. While some people go so far as to make the preposterous suggestion that South Asians must have some kind of spelling gene, most observers look for some cultural factors to explain the recent South Indian dominance in this activity. But in the May, 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Vauhini Vara, herself a one-time competitor, delves deep into the Indian Spelling Bee community and suggests other factors at work. Starting with her own experience, she says that when an Indian family moves into a new community, they actively seek out other Indian families to socialize with, to the extent of cold-calling people in the local phone book who have Indian names, and the spelling bee provides those families with a way to integrate into and establish their identity within this narrow community.

But she finds something else at work as well. It turns out that now there are Spelling Bee contests under the auspices of something called the North South Foundation that host regional and national championships that are open only to children of Indian ethnic origin and that act as practice tournaments before they go to the big event, and thus these spellers have an edge.

In 2003, an N.S.F. kid, Sai Gunturi, won Scripps for the first time. In 2008, another N.S.F. kid won. An N.S.F. kid won the next year, the year after that, and the year after that. Nihar and Jairam’s joint victory was the latest in a nine-year run of N.S.F.-veteran Scripps champions.

Believe it or not, there is now a rival group known as the South Asian Spelling Bee that also has a restrictive ethnicity-based policy on who can compete and was started because some people felt that the NSF bee was not tough enough to prepare them well for the Scripps event.

So, as in so many other fields, it looks like practice is crucial, as in the old joke about someone asking a person on the street: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and receiving the reply “Practice, practice, practice.” As much as I disliked the Spelling Bee before, I dislike it even more now after reading this article, not least because the idea of having practice contests that limit admission based on ethnicity seems to me to be highly offensive and objectionable, especially since this group already has so many advantages. These families are affluent with both parents highly educated and able to have one parent spend inordinate amounts of time coaching their child. As Vara writes:

Indian immigrants and their families tend to be wealthier and have more degrees than most other immigrant groups… “If you look at who’s training at this level, there’s often one stay-at-home parent who’s very educated,” Shankar told me. She sees more spelling-bee winners who are doctors’ children than janitors’. “They may not be über-wealthy people, but they’re very comfortably living in this country, to the extent that they can spend their time on this.”

Of course, there are lots of kids who fit a similar profile but devote their energies to tennis or piano practice or the debate team. What makes spelling special? As I spent time with Nihar, Jairam, and their friends, it occurred to me that the most plausible answer might be the simplest: because of the North South Foundation, these kids—not all Indian-American kids, but this particular privileged subset—have had the chance to participate in spelling bees since they were barely old enough to read. If peewee basketball were open only to Indian Americans, the N.B.A. might be full of them, too.

And the organizer says that Indian-American parents, like other well-to-do parents who are intensely competitive about their children’s activities, can be a real pain.

[H]e fields a lot of complaints: His kid got an easier word than mine. Mine’s only in the first grade, and it’s not fair that she has to compete against third graders. In the beginning, he used to hand out medals to participants. That wasn’t enough for some parents. “They’re saying, ‘We’re coming all this way, spending all this money. We want trophies!’ ” Chitturi explained. So he gave in and started distributing trophies. Then the parents said the trophies were too small. He got bigger ones. Now, he said, “The kids can’t even hold them.”

Another thing I learned from the article? That all these expert spellers know that the longest word in the English language is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (45 letters). In my youth, the correct answer was antidisestablishmentarianism (a mere 28 letters). At least that was the folklore then. I decided to look up when it had got dethroned and it turns out to be still the longest non-coined, nontechnical word but the longer word is the longest word in a major dictionary. I also learned that honorificabilitudinitatibus (27 letters) is the longest word in Shakespeare’s works and is also the longest word in the English language that has alternating consonants and vowels, an interesting bit of trivia with which to stump your friends.

All this, of course, is pretty useless knowledge, like knowing the spelling of highly esoteric words.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: One question in my mind is why such a pointless activity as spelling highly esoteric words has become so attractive….

    Well, if were just a matter of kids having fun competing in some activity, then spelling bees don’t seem any more weird or pointless than a lot of other games and sports that kids (and adults!) obsess over.

    But seeing how it’s really about hyper-competition between parents in a way that probably makes for a lot of miserable childhoods, then, yeah, I don’t get it.

  2. says

    The other puzzling thing is why the contest is dominated by children of Indian ethnicity, especially from the southern part of that country. While some people go so far as to make the preposterous suggestion that South Asians must have some kind of spelling gene, most observers look for some cultural factors to explain the recent South Indian dominance in this activity.

    You just fairly neatly summarized evolutionary psychology.
    And eugenics.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    You never know which words will come in handy some day. For example, when would it have occurred to you that it was appropriate to say that the president of the United States is a gormless gobshite?

  4. Richard Simons says

    I’ve only seen spelling bees referred to in an American context. Are they popular anywhere else?

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reginald Selkirk @ # 3: … when would it have occurred to you that it was appropriate to say that the president of the United States is a gormless gobshite?

    Jan 2001-Jan 2009, naturally.

    The term seems too euphemistic for the present incumbent.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    To win this contest requires knowing the spelling of 150,000 to 200,000 words.

    I can’t wait: Sunday crossword puzzles will get tougher than ever!

  7. anat says

    Is there a similar obsession with math olympiad and other STEM-oriented contests? When my kid was in elementary school I volunteered to coach the math team at the school (in part to encourage him to participate). Our school’s team was very low-key. our goal was to get kids more confident in their math skills and encourage out-of-the-box problem solving. We participated in one competition at the school-district level and one not-very competitive state event each year (the state event was of the type where there are multiple parallel events at multiple locations and all teams that earn a certain number of points win). One year one of the parents organized for us to participate in another state event that is more competitive – a single location, public oral quizzing, very few winners. It was way to stressful for some of the kids. (Also included some problems that were way above the level of these elementary kids – we were not trying to push them beyond basic algebraic concepts.) But I noticed some of the other teams were very comfortable with the format and content, and the adults accompanying the kids were constantly quizzing them.

  8. deepak shetty says

    the North South Foundation that host regional and national championships that are open only to children of Indian ethnic origin

    Since this is India we are talking about – we also have sub divisions like Spelling bee for Telugu kids (language of a state in India) and a Spelling bee for Tamil kids(a different state) and so on. While probably technically open to all , practically it wont be.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Richard Simons @#4,

    I don’t know. I know that in many languages, words are spelled phonetically so a spelling bee would not make much sense. But in those languages that use the English alphabet, I have not heard of anything with the same sense of intensity as the US version.

  10. Mano Singham says

    anat @#7,

    There are Science and Math Olympiads which can be quite intense too but the students who take part in them are generally older and the format itself is not so publicly high pressure, as far as I am aware.

  11. HFM says

    I was a high-level Olympiad kid (USA, early 2000s, won some free trips to random foreign countries). There’s not really an ethnic component like you see in spelling; there were recent immigrants from places like Russia and China (where such contests are a much bigger deal, and where fast-tracking starts very early), but most of us were just children of affluent families that valued education and had the resources to send their young kids to math camps, special after-school programs, and the like.

    Mostly, we weren’t being forced to do it. The average Olympiad kid is smart, but has difficulty being alone with their thoughts (anxiety, OCD, etc), thus engages in “self-medication by textbook”.

  12. says

    All this, of course, is pretty useless knowledge, like knowing the spelling of highly esoteric words.

    Which is why I will soon be forgetting that I ever read this post! 🙂

  13. Steve L says

    Very insightful blog post.

    The article below tells a lot about the origins of the spelling bee, and is extremely informative in general:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1993/05/30/killer-bees/d905871d-d9d4-4ca4-8b6c-4d8423f3c56d

    A key excerpt:
    ——
    By the early 1800s, spelling bees had become a popular form of evening recreation in the American hinterlands for children and adults alike. According to Allen W. Reed in a 1941 essay titled “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk,” the spelldown offered “constructive” entertainment in which boys and girls from neighboring districts could meet and socialize under the watchful eye of a chaperone. Competition could be stiff. One Indiana woman noted in her diary in the 1830s: “Towards the close of the evening, when difficult and unusual words are chosen to confound the small number who still keep the floor, it {is} scarcely less than painful.”

    Spelling bees became a national craze following the publication of an 1871 Western dialect novel, The Hoosier Schoolmaster, by Edward Eggleston. The novel celebrated the spelling champions of Flat Creek, Ind., where children “loved spelling for its own sake, and who, smelling the battle from afar, {came} to try their skill.” By 1875, thanks largely to Eggleston’s book, spelling had become, according to a London Times reporter, the “prevailing infatuation in America.”
    —-
    So, America is the birthplace of the spelling bee. If it’s popular anywhere else, then that would have to be a recent phenomenon. But even if that’s the case, I don’t think it could nearly as popular in any other country as it is here.

    What makes the spelling bee so tragic is that it is a colossal waste of time, pulverizing kids and turning them into robots. At least if you are forced to learn a sport, an instrument, etc., that may pay future dividends—you could earn a scholarship and/or make a career out of the skill. But how many people win “spelling bee” scholarships, or become full-time “spelling bee” coaches? 😛

    Worst of all, these kids must be completely miserable. Many of them start learning obscure words at the age of 3 or 4, which is outright child abuse. I have no doubt that the spelling bee takes an untold psychological toll on many of these kids, likely to erupt in terrible ways in the future. These parents are simply destroying their kids’ childhoods. I think many (if not most) of these parents need serious professional help.

    If the parents of those kids studying 50+ hours a week for the spelling bee ever said to them, “If you’re not having fun and don’t want to do the spelling bee, you don’t have to,” how many of the kids would actually continue? Probably very few, if any.

    Now, I don’t think there’s anything hugely wrong with having classroom spelling bees occasionally for learning and for fun, using grade-appropriate words. But once the bee becomes a serious competition, then essentially all utility vanishes. I just don’t get why so few American adults can see what a pathetic joke the spelling bee is.

    One time a popular singer was asked in an interview what she thought of MTV. Her response: “Humiliated women.” Similarly, when it comes to the spelling bee, the name of the game seems to be “humiliated children.” Perhaps a better name for the National Spelling Bee would be “The Great American Tragedy.” 🙁

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