In a normal year, millions of Americans would be following closely this week as preteens showcase their knowledge of words most of us have never heard of.
The contestants and their families may be devastated by the cancellation of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. As a linguist who studies languages that draw from multiple sources, I’m disappointed our country is missing its annual lesson in English linguistics.
The social and professional benefits of spelling bees are hard to ignore. The participants, including many from immigrant families, develop skills of grit and performance, and they and their parents form new social networks. An entire industry has emerged surrounding the preparation of elite contestants.
But it’s also worth recognizing spelling bees’ contributions to the public’s awareness of world languages. Even if the acceptable spellings of many international words are debatable, their presence highlights the multicultural past and present of the English tongue.
In a millennium of global expeditions and conquests, English has cast its net in diverse linguistic habitats. It has captured words from many languages, often for concepts not previously expressed in English. Linguists call these words “loanwords,” which does not mean English eventually returns them.
Many loanwords have been part of English for centuries and are not considered foreign at all. Unless they’ve studied linguistics, most people would be surprised to learn that “skirt” entered English from Old Norse, “beef” from French and “expensive” from Latin.
With more recent loanwords, English speakers sense their language of origin but still see them as part of English. This is especially common in the domains of cuisine, as with “jambalaya” (from Louisiana French, originally Provençal), natural phenomena like “tsunami” (Japanese) and specialized terminology such as “fortissimo” (Italian) in music.
Although there is no English language academy that makes official rulings, the spellings of such loanwords are standardized, as they are frequently used in English and have been for many years. Nobody would question their inclusion in the spelling bee.
Most English loanwords borrow from languages that, like English, use the Latin alphabet. These words usually maintain their original spellings, such as “schadenfreude” (German: pleasure derived from another’s misfortune) and “coup d’état” (French: violent overthrow of a government).
Other examples, which showed up in the 2019 national spelling bee, include “tjaele” (Swedish: frozen ground), “imbirussú” (Portuguese: a South American tree) and “geeldikkop” (Afrikaans: a disease among southern African sheep). Some viewers might wonder if words like these should be included in the bee, but nobody would question their spellings.
However, English – and therefore spelling bees – also includes many words from languages not historically written in Latin characters. Sometimes the English spellings of these words adhere to conventionalized phonetic transliteration.
Examples include “makimono” (Japanese: a horizontal ornamental scroll), “namaz” (Persian: Islamic prayer) and “teledu” (Malay: a Javanese skunk-like animal). In other cases, many possible transliterations are used within English, even if the dictionary provides only one spelling. Is it “falafel” or “felafel”? “Pad thai” or “phad thai”?
Last year’s competition featured several such ambiguous loanwords, including “chaebol,” which could be “jaebeol” (Korean: a family-controlled industrial conglomerate) and “kooletah,” which could be “kuleta” (Greenlandic Aleut: a caribou-skin coat). In fact, four of the five most difficult languages of origin in spelling bees are written in non-Latin letters.
Wrangling over loanwords
Of course, difficulty should not disqualify a word from being included in spelling bees. But such loanwords have generated controversy in recent years, especially from word mavens in the Jewish community upset about the spellings of the bee’s many words from Hebrew and Yiddish.
Some Hebrew and Yiddish sounds have multiple possible transliterations, and Jews of different backgrounds have different spelling preferences. To represent this diversity, when I moderate Hebrew and Yiddish entries in the crowdsourced Jewish English Lexicon, I list several spellings – sometimes more than a dozen.
A Hebrew example is “keriah” (Jewish ceremonial garment rending), spelled “correctly” by 13-year-old Rishik Gandhasri, one of the eight champions in 2019. This word has many attested spellings, including “kria,” “kriyah” and “qeri’ah.” “Kriah,” according to Google, is the most common spelling in English. But the E.W. Scripps Company, which has run the bee since 1941, allows only “keriah.” Why? Because that’s the spelling espoused by Merriam-Webster, Scripps’ authoritative dictionary.
Gandhasri advanced to another round in the bee with the Yiddish-origin word “yiddishkeit” (Jewishness). In a standard system for transliterating Yiddish words, it’s spelled “yidishkayt.” However, a Yiddish culture organization in Los Angeles spells it “Yiddishkayt.” These spellings represent different ideologies regarding Yiddish and its relationship to German. And many who use them believe wholeheartedly that only their spelling is correct.
In the 2013 bee, the winning word was also from Yiddish: “knaidel” (Passover dumpling). I wrote then that, if I had been a contestant: “I would have given 10 possible spellings, explained what various spellings indicate about the people who write them and then protested the English spelling bee’s use of loanwords from a language that does not use Latin script. Clearly, I would have lost.”
Benefits of a growing lexicon
Since then, I have recognized the benefits of including such loanwords. First, while contestants must learn the spelling and transliteration conventions of dozens of languages, the major skill tested is who can memorize more of the 472,000 words in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. The competition emphasizes this skill by including loanwords without standardized English spellings.
Second, the ubiquity of loanwords expands Americans’ awareness of new cultural domains. The broad media coverage of recent spelling bees has introduced Americans to a Brazilian drum, “atabaque” (from Portuguese, influenced by Arabic), a Norse merman, “marmennill” (from Icelandic) and a Polynesian chief or noble, “alii” (from Hawaiian).
Even when the dictionary’s one accepted spelling is debatable, members of immigrant, indigenous and religious groups are generally proud when spelling bees feature their community’s language in such a public way.
Although 2020 news headlines won’t feature 13-year-olds’ spelling feats, we can still marvel, not only at the accomplishments of our youth, but also at the richness of the English lexicon. Whether loanwords are from Icelandic, Korean or Hebrew, they remind us of the layered history of our language and the increasingly interconnected nature of our world.
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