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.