National Spelling Bee 2010: Commentary

The spelling bee is over. This year’s bee was shorter than past bees, even after factoring in the many commercials that ESPN and ABC included. This year also wasn’t drama-free.

The first bit of drama started with the ambiguity of the judges. Neetu Chandak of New York, the only four-time repeater, was asked to spell “paravane” and asked if the word contained the root peri- meaning around. This is a question the judges are allowed to answer. The word doesn’t, but Dr. Bailly, the reader, was ambiguous in his response, saying she was on the right track. Neetu used this response in her spelling of the word and got eliminated. Her mother protested on her behalf, and Neetu was reinstated after the judges agreed about the ambiguity of the response. Her next word was her downfall–“apogalacteum”. That last vowel was the tricky part.

Then came round six. The spellers were dropping like bees. More contestants were getting words wrong than getting them right, and the bee organizers announced about halfway through the round that the ten contestants on stage, only four of whom had spelled their round six word correctly, would be advancing to the championship finals that night. Of course, no one said that round six would be completed that night, so the six spellers who hadn’t had a chance to spell would get an extra chance to study. This may sound unfair, and it is. There’s a provision in the rules for this.

If the ESPN broadcast concludes during a semifinal round, spellers who have not spelled in the round will advance to the championship finals for the conclusion of the last semifinals round. The championship finals consist of rounds of oral spelling and are concurrent with the competition’s live broadcast on ABC on Friday, June 4, unless the ABC broadcast begins in a round that began during the semifinals. The championship finals will not officially commence until the last semifinals round has concluded, and prizes will be awarded accordingly.

(emphasis mine)

Yet during the afternoon shenanigans and the evening finals, the final ten were all called championship finalists, although not all of them technically were. In fact, two of the six misspelled their word in the last part of round six. This might sound like nitpicking, but what are these finalists going to call themselves? Sort-of finalists? Semifinalists (their actual title)? I know this is just semantics, but if you can ask for the language of origin and use it, you probably care about the semantics.

Now onto the bee itself. One of my favorites for winning, Anamika, did in fact win with stromuhr. The fact that my spell check doesn’t recognize this word distresses me. She also made a plea to basketball player Lebron James to stay on his current team.

The pesky schwa was the death for many a speller. It was also pesky for me while I was playing along during the bee. On a related note, the connecting vowel between two roots was often a schwa, which usually means it could be anything. Sometimes etymologies could help root this out, but other times the etymologies were so scrambled that a you had to guess. See Elizabeth and “rhytidome”.

The dictionary they use tends to be unfair to some words, especially those with roots in Japanese and the romance languages. A lot of the words in that dictionary are anglicized, which would trip up the spellers because they recognize the roots in the traditional way. See “gyokuro”. The anglicized pronunciation turns the first o into an a, which trips up an otherwise perfectly phonetic (and typical) Japanese spelling.

Overall, there are a few types of words that just really suck to get because you likely won’t know them unless you’ve seen the word before. Here’s a small list.

* Words of unknown origin: everyone’s worst nightmare. Laura (the Canadian) got one of these. Scrannel. She got it correct; thankfully the word was phonetic, though the last vowel could have been tricky.
* Words that have entered the international scientific community. This usually happens with drugs. Have you ever looked at the name of a generic drug? There’s a reason they’re so long. When you hear that, you better hope there’s more to that etymology or that you can guess well.
* Eponyms: Bayesian was one of these words. The speller got it wrong, probably because he hadn’t taken statistics yet. If a word is named for a person or geographic region, you just have to hope and spell.
* On the opposite problem of unknown origin, there are the words with such muddled origins that the word could be spelled with the influence of any of those languages. The winning word falls under this category. German plus French then German. I was tempted to end the word with -eur, but then remembered the German. English origin isn’t much better since that’s just a bastard language of all the other language.

With that, I think I’ve had enough TV for another year.

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