The Spelling Bee is broken

As long time readers know, I am not a fan of the Spelling Bee competition for many reasons. I have also been puzzled by the dominance of people of South Asian ethnicity in this competition. That community seems to be willing to spend enormous amounts of time and money to coach their children to do well in this competition. This year’s competition that ended yesterday resulted in an unprecedented result in which eight students, seven of them with South Asian names, were crowned co-champions because of a sudden rule change. The reason apparently is that the organizers were running out of difficult words.

One of my main complaints is that even if we grant that being a good speller is an important skill, the competition format is not even designed to produce the best speller since luck can determine if you get a particularly tough word that eliminates you early. It would make more sense to read the same words to all the contestants (at least those who make it to the final round), have them write out the words, and see who gets the most right. Instead the competition is designed for drama with students being place in the national spotlight, to show the exhilaration of getting a word right and the dejection, sometimes devastation, that follows when they get it wrong and are eliminated. Designed for TV drama is fine if you are dealing with adults as in the myriad reality shows we now see. But subjecting young children of the ages of 12 and 13 to it seems wrong.

One of this blog’s readers sent me his analysis of what happened yesterday and I think is worth passing on.

Well, this year the National Spelling Bee was finally revealed as a farce. They got down to the final 8 kids and the judges decided that they didn’t have any words they could misspell, so they declared all 8 co-champions, even though their rules only allow for a max of 3 co-champs. While I was watching it, it seemed like they decided almost last minute in round 17 to allow the remaining kids to be co-champs if they lasted ’til round 20. It definitely wasn’t in the rules. ( ) Totally ridiculous. And I’m feeling really bad for the 9th place girl who was just as good as the 8 co-champs. They decided at the last minute to give the 8 co-champs $50,000 EACH, but the 9th place girl is stuck with $2,000 (or at least that’s what the rules say 9th place is supposed to get; they might change it and give her the 2nd place $25,000). I mean, if she only gets $2,000, her parents probably spent way more than that on coaching and study materials.

At this point it’s kind of a broken contest … which I guess was bound to happen eventually when your contest is based on memorizing a book (the dictionary) with a limited amount of information in it.

Also they raised the fee to “buy your kid’s way into the Bee” from $750 to $1500 this year (plus travel expenses), and also charged a $600 penalty if you stay at a different hotel than the hotel where the bee is held at. There were about 300 kids (out of the 567 total) whose parents bought their way into the bee this year.

This year’s result should send a clear signal that the format is broken and needs to be changed. In the final round, each of the eight winners spelled one of the following words that were put to them correctly: auslaut, erysipelas, bougainvillea, aiguillette, pendeloque, palama, cernuous, odylic. The only word I recognize is bougainvillea though I likely could not spell it correctly. But we do not know if all of them could spell all the words. But change will only happen if the commercial sponsors that put it on TV demand it because clearly some people are making a lot of money out of this competition.


  1. says

    What does a spelling bee measure? It seems to mostly measure how hard you’re willing to work.

    I suppose it’s an argument against certain camps of innatist theories of Intelligence.

  2. Ketil Tveiten says

    Straight talk: no other country has competitions in “spelling words correctly”. This is because either a) they have undertaken to ensure that their language spells words in ways that are consistent with how they are pronounced, or b) they are British (or sufficiently Recently British), and feel themselves above such lowly endeavours as having competitions in basic skills.

    For reals, you people: Anglos are just bad at certain things. Like spelling. Every other language has had (several) reforms to spelling, to make spelling natural and consistent with pronounciation, but not the Anglos.

  3. Jean says

    In French we have ‘la dictée’ which is more in line with what you say where everyone writes the same text at the same time. So you not only need to know how to spell but know grammar as well. And there are quite a few grammar rules and exceptions in French (even if there has been some reform to simplify spelling and grammar but not to the point that it as simple as implied in comment #2 above).

    I think this is actually a more useful skill that a ‘simple’ spelling bee because even though there are grammar traps and unusual words, you actually have to understand the context to use the correct spelling and grammar. But it’s not something made to captivate an audience even though there are some televised ones (or have been).

  4. chigau (違う) says

    They should be able to define the words, provide a bit of etymology, and use them correctly in a sentence.
    Otherwise what is the point?

  5. Jenora Feuer says

    The CBC used to have a series called ‘Words: Woe and Wonder’. There’s an article there specifically on English spelling: MNOPSPTEICHE? RELAX FOR A SPELL. (MNOPSPTEICHE is basically ‘mistake’ the same way that ‘ghoti’ is ‘fish’.) The author notes that making spelling consistent with pronunciation:
    A) is difficult because someone has to decidewhich pronunciation out of all the multiple dialects is used;
    B) potentially loses information about word relationships (the silent ‘g’ in ‘resign’ is pronounced in ‘resignation’) or the etymology back to the original language;
    C) causes all sorts of problems with homophones where the different spellings of ‘meat’, ‘meet’ and ‘mete’ lets you know which was meant with less context.

    The last even partially successful attempt at spelling reform in English was done by Noah Webster, and he could only really reform within the U.S. Nowadays so MUCH stuff would have to be rewritten it would be difficult, and so many different countries use English as an official language that unless all of them somehow manage to agree on it, it’s not happening.

    That said, I agree that the Spelling Bee seems to primarily be an American thing. And $50K prizes? No wonder people are spending huge amounts of money and time going for them.

  6. cartomancer says

    It does seem a fairly pointless exercise to me, save under one condition -- the participants actually enjoy doing it. If it’s truly something they love doing then more power to them. But I am not convinced that’s the case in most instances. After all, while many people do sports as a leisure activity, how many people of this age would choose to do spelling tests for fun if there wasn’t a big prize and pushy parents involved? (I expect it would be a few, but not nearly as many as do this sort of thing).

  7. cartomancer says

    I have in mind the comparison of the quiz (particularly the pub quiz, a cornerstone of British culture), which is something a lot of people do find fun, myself included. But while competitive quizzing championships do exist, there is a certain sense among amateur quizzers that you’re spoiling things and breaking an unwritten rule if you actually revise for these things, rather than approaching them as a test of whatever knowledge you have acquired in your day to day life. The ethic is one of the gentleman amateur, and sitting down to actually learn lists of facts solely for quiz answering purposes goes entirely against the spirit of the thing.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @3 Jean
    Now, une dictée is exciting to watch and hardly know any French. The skills make sense if one is going to write French correctly.

    I remember seeing one of my Francophone colleagues pulling out a Bescherelle and thought ack, I don’t have a hope.

    I have never seen much sense in a spelling bee. Of course, that partly may be due to the fact that my spelling is atrocious.

    @ 5 Jenora Feuer
    An interesting idea has been developed by Dmitry Orlov. He suggests dropping the standard orthography and replacing it with something he calls Unspell.

    Given the installed user-base of the current form of English I cannot see it happening, at least any time in the near future but it would appear to have the potential to let a child learn to read fairly fluently in a few weeks or months rather than the 6 or 8 years it seems to take now for English.

    I believe Finnish children are quite literate in a couple of months but the spelling and pronunciation are reported to be the same.

    I have begun to think that written English is one step away from an idiographic language such as Chinese.

    When one can write something like “Aye sea that the see is blew” and it makes sense when spoken, we just may have a broken system.


  9. chigau (違う) says

    jrkrideau #8

    I have begun to think that written English is one step away from an idiographic language such as Chinese.

    I have been trying to learn Japanese for several years and you are absolutely correct.

  10. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer @#7,

    I have heard of, but never taken part in, pub quizzes. They seem like a lot of fun because they have exactly the right level of competitive spirit: fun to win but no biggie if you lose. Too bad we don’t have anything similar in the US.

  11. A. Noyd says

    Ketil Tveiten (#2)

    Every other language has had (several) reforms to spelling, to make spelling natural and consistent with pronounciation, but not the Anglos.

    Reform didn’t help much for Japanese. The reformists were of several opposing camps. Unable to decide whose system should win, they paused the reform at this horrible compromise orthography. Only, they never went back to reform the basic system, so now Japanese is the owner of the most difficult writing system in the world.

    There aren’t spelling bees in Japan since they don’t rely on an alphabet, but you can pay to take qualifying tests that show off how well you read and write the Chinese characters which make up the backbone of the Japanese writing system. The only real benefit to this is bragging rights, though.


    jkrideau (#8)

    I have begun to think that written English is one step away from an idiographic language such as Chinese.

    This is something I try to tell my (Japanese) students. They have this naive belief that writing in an alphabetic language should be easy, and get frustrated with themselves for sucking at it. Explaining about spelling bees helps them understand what they’re up against.

    Not that it’s especially reassuring for them to find out that in order to master English, they’ll have to spend even more time memorizing arbitrary configurations of orthographic elements. But at least they know they’re not defective for not getting it easily.

  12. Ketil Tveiten says

    @5 Jenora Feuer: all the existing spelling reforms involved compromises and decisions about what to emphasise. That doesn’t mean they were bad ideas or pointless. I regularly make the argument that English spelling, as it currently exists, is a fantastic tool for teaching etymology, since each word more or less retains the spelling it had before it was imported into the English language, which, when comparing the spelling and pronounciation of the word, lets you know when the word came into the language and from where; this does not in any way help the actual speakers of the language in their everyday lives.

    The variation between dialects is one of the reasons that we don’t all use the International Phonetic Alphabet, but rather use some variant of *phonemic* spelling. Phonemes are relatively consistent across dialects of the same language, and so you can make the spelling relatively uniform regardless of dialectical variation.

  13. efogoto says

    @Mano 11: There are pub quizzes in America. I know of a few around the San Francisco Bay Area that happen weekly, and play in one that’s been running since 1985.

    As to the spelling bee, I’d have got erysipelas, but only because a great-great-grandfather of mine died of it in the 1850s, and that got it stuck in my head.

  14. says

    Jenora Feuer @#5

    I agree that getting multiple countries (USA, UK, Australia, Canada, etc.) agree upon a single new spelling system would be near impossible. So far I agree with you.

    A) is difficult because someone has to decidewhich pronunciation out of all the multiple dialects is used;
    B) potentially loses information about word relationships (the silent ‘g’ in ‘resign’ is pronounced in ‘resignation’) or the etymology back to the original language;
    C) causes all sorts of problems with homophones where the different spellings of ‘meat’, ‘meet’ and ‘mete’ lets you know which was meant with less context.

    Now this is where I disagree. These problems are trivial, they could be solved. Countless languages have better writing systems than English. I suggest you look up Latvian writing system. It was created in 1920ties by linguists who actually knew what they were doing, and Latvian writing system is great. Alternatively, you can look up Italian. Back when I was learning Italian, I really liked their orthography. Or you can look up Finnish.

    English isn’t the only language that has regional variations in pronunciation. In my opinion, the differences between American, British, Australian, etc. accents are negligible compared to how much some other languages differ. For example, German has plenty of regional variation in pronunciation, and also a better writing system than English. Although, frankly, I don’t really like German orthography that much, but still, it’s definitely much better than English. Italian also has a lot of regional variations.

    By the way, it’s perfectly possible to create a writing system that doesn’t lose information about word relationships while still remaining logical and easy to learn. This is how Latvian orthography works. Not all words are written as they are pronounced. Instead many words show their grammatical relationships and etymology. The difference between Latvian and English is that Latvian spelling rules are consistent—you just have to learn a limited amount of spelling rules, and then they will consistently apply to all the words. Contrast that with English where there are hardly any consistent spelling rules, instead everything is just arbitrary randomness.

    As for homophones, in Latvian those are spelled the same most of the time. I don’t see that as a problem. People don’t have a problem understanding what somebody else meant to write. After all, humans tend to use words in context.

    Personally, I deeply hate English writing system. I speak six languages, and English orthography is by far the worst among all of them. Back when I was studying for my Master’s degree in philology, I took a course about writing systems in comparison. I find it fascinating how linguists who created writing systems have solved various problems (like the ones you listed) in different languages. Some solutions are really clever. There are some amazing writing systems out there. Unfortunately, English isn’t one of them.

    Back when I was learning Italian, I really liked the consistent spelling rules. Whenever I read some new word, I could easily guess how to pronounce it. Whenever I heard some new word, I could make a guess about how to write it. Usually I got it right. Learning English has been entirely different. Whenever I read some new word, I have to open a dictionary and look up the pronunciation. Whenever I hear some new word, I have no clue how to spell it and occasionally I cannot even look it up in a dictionary, because all my guesses for possible spelling yield no results. That’s a pain in the ass.

    By the way, a Spelling Bee competition in Latvian would be impossible, because all the kids would get all the words correctly. I learned to read back when I was 6, and then I made plenty of spelling mistakes in words where spelling was different from the pronunciation. By the time I was 12, I had already learned all the spelling rules and I could spell all the words correctly. In Latvian, a spelling contest would be possible only among kids who are about six years old, and then it would be simply a contest about which kid learns how to write at the earliest age.

  15. says

    jrkrideau @ 8: Orlov’s proposal reminds me a little of the Shavian alphabet.

    The frustrating thing is that English spelling used to be quite regular in the days of Old English, to the point where scholars can be quite certain about how its different regional dialects sounded by observing how scribes in those areas recorded the spelling of various words. Unfortunately, the English literary tradition was interrupted by the Norman Conquest which resulted in Norman French becoming the prestige language for several hundred years. When English once again became a language of law and commerce, it had evolved in the meantime into Middle English, quite a different language-- and now it was being written by scribes more familiar with French spelling conventions. And then, just to make matters worse, printing arrived in England at exactly the wrong time, right in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift, causing the spelling to “crystallize” at a point where the pronunciation of the language was in profound flux. Result: a shambles of a spelling system-- and that’s before we even get to the “inkhorners” who spent most of the 16th century adding silent letters to words like “isle” and “debt” because Latin had them 🙄… so not only is English spelling crocked, there’s been periods of time when it has been deliberately made worse!

  16. says

    colinday @ 14: I believe Noah Webster made plans for a much more radical overhaul of American English spelling but there was only so much change that his contemporaries were willing to adopt.

  17. Holms says

    The purpose of a word is to communicate something to the listener. If it conveys nothing due to having fallen out of virtually everyone’s vocabulary, then it is only a part of the language in a technical (as opposed to practical) sense. By choosing the most obscure and rarely used words possible, the spelling bee is essentially leaving english behind.

    That said, there is then the question: how obscure is so obscure that it should no longer be considered a part of the language? From the list given by Mano I understood erysipelas and bougainvillea, and even spelled them correctly without going back to the OP to check (though this was probably helped by reading them there minutes ago)… should I therefore declare that those words are still part of the language and the rest aren’t? This is a highly vague boundary condition with no real solution that is not completely arbitrary.

    The same can be said of those that take Scrabble seriously enough to study those specialised Scrabble dictionaries. I googled up an online scrabble helper,, and entered some letters at to see what nonsense might be brought forth. Among many other silly things, it suggested quindars, yamun, rynd, saying of them “Is rynd a scrabble word? No Definition of ‘rynd’ Found -- It’s still good as a Scrabble word though!” -- how the hell is it a word at all if there is no meaning to it??

  18. flex says

    Rynd -- grinding mill The ball which supports the runner on the head of the spindle.

    from The American Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 1894.

    I didn’t check my other old dictionaries, but it appears to be jargon.

  19. seachange says

    My experience as a studend of nihon-go is that the teachers and other native speakers from Japan were flabberghasted at the idea that English was hard to spell. They’d been memorizing everything, just like they did with kana. The possibility of ghoti blew them away.

    I know someone who did spelling bees and I can say that yes they in real life were like the fictional Hermione Granger, they LIKED tests. A lot. A spelling bee not only is a way to publicly display their pleasure of orthography and sesquipedalianism in a way that is not in the course of ordinary social interatcion possible, it is a way to show off. It isn’t that 50KUSD is ‘a lot’ so much that unlike a letter grade in school, it is a tangible reward for both of those things.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    None of those eight words are of English origin. I blame the Greeks. And other furriners.

  21. jack19 says

    Good blog post, Mano. Yes, the spelling bee has always been a mess, but it seems to be more broken now than ever. That’s probably a good thing—hopefully more people will see what a pathetic joke the whole contest is.

    In regard to finding the best speller, Alex Cameron, the former official pronouncer at the National Spelling Bee, even admitted many years ago that this has never been a goal of the spelling bee:

    The spelling bee is all about *money*—and putting on a show. It uses and abuses kids for entertainment value. It also appeals to the inner “fame junkie” of insecure parents. In general, people are willing to do just about anything for 15 minutes of fame, even if that means eating a bucketful of insects. 😉

    Basically, that’s the whole reason these kids are participating in the spelling bee. It’s not about learning or knowledge or improving language skills. In a nutshell, their parents are fame-hungry prestige who**s who are willing to wantonly sacrifice their kids’ childhood if that means approval and recognition from society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *