Tuesday June 12, 2007

Blogging the 2007 Bee

Although we missed the live broadcast, thanks to the miracle of TiVo we were able to catch a late-night repeat of the final rounds of the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee.  What follows are some observations about the Bee and a discussion of the particular words the kids had to spell.  Fair warning: lots of spoilers, including most importantly the correct spellings of the words. 

When we watch the annual Bees, I like to pause before they reveal each word and try to guess the spelling.  Suffice to say that the kids do way better than I do, as you'll see below.  After some initial human-interest fluff and the introduction of the surprisingly (and unnecessarily) large number of color commentators, they finally got down to the spelling.  Let's go through it word by word.

GIROLLE:  A kind of mushroom.  The fact that this comes from French helps, but the boy got hung up on the two pronunciations: one with [o] and the other with [ʌ].  He and the pronouncer went back and forth for about two minutes trying to decided between [a] and [ʌ].  Finally, he went with GIROL and was eliminated.  (My guess was GIROLE, also wrong.)

RASCACIO:  A "variegated spinose scorpion fish".  From Latin to Provencal to Spanish...hmm, that's a little tricky.  The smart move was to go with a straight Spanish spelling, since that's the language the word is derived from most recently.  That's what the boy did, spelling it correctly.  (I believe I guessed this one right as well.)

ZACATE:  "Forage of grass plants."  From Nahuatl orginally—interesting.  The pronunciation was Anglicized, with [i] in the final syllable, and the pronouncer was relentless about pronouncing the first syllable with a schwa.  That's his job, of course, but it makes spelling the word a crapshoot if you haven't studied the word: could be ZACATE, could be ZOCATE...  The girl spelled it ZOCATE and was eliminated (that was my guess too).

APOZEM:  Some kind of boiled herbal medicine.  Greek to Latin to French to English with a schwa in the middle syllable—that leaves a large set of possible spellings of the middle of the word.  Single or double P, just about any vowel, and then either Z or S.  The boy spelled it APIZEM, a perfectly plausible guess, and was eliminated.  (Note to Canadians: we pronounce it zee down here, not zed—if you insist of crashing our national spelling bee, you could at least say the letters right.  Thanks.)  (I can't remember what I guessed for this one—I think I got the APO- right and choked on the end.)

PARTITUR:  A kind of musical score.  From Latin to Italian to German.  From the pronunciation, I was sure he was going to say it came from French, and I already had PARTITOUR (or -EUR) in my head, which was totally wrong.  The word's spelling is straight Latin, and the boy (another Canadian!) spelled it confidently.

BOULEUTERION:  A council chamber.  Another Greek word.  The first and second syllables were pronounced with [u],  with an alternate pronunciation of the second with [ju].  That made it tempting to simply spell them, especially the second, with U.  That EU is an absolute killer.  The end could equally well be -TERION or -TIRION given the way Greek words are pronounced in English.  The boy went with BULUTERION and was eliminated.  (I figured the first and second syllables must be spelled differently if the alternate pronunciation only changed the second, so I went with BOULUTERION, also wrong.)

PUNAISE:  A word of French origin meaning 'bedbug'.  Given [ju] in the first syllable and [ez] in the second, the French spelling is pretty easy to come up with.  The boy cleverly asked to make sure it was a singular noun, since the plural would probably have a silent S on the end.  He then spelled it correctly, and looked surprised to be right.  (I guessed it might be a scientific word that retained the Latin spelling, so I went with PUNES.)

URGRUND:  A primal cause.  I immediately recognized this as a German word containing the prefix UR- 'original', but the pronunciation of the end of the word with a [t] fooled me.  Curse you, final devoicing!  The girl was also tripped up by this, spelling it URGRUNDT, though that spelling shows some awareness of German spelling rules.  (I went with the similarly-incorrect URGRUNT.)  Excellent example sentence, BTW: "The mystic kept searching for the root of all mysteries, the urgrund from which come all contrasts such as heaven and hell, happiness and sorrow."  Heavy!  Imagine being faced with that while you trying to keep your cool.  (Shouldn't  it be "...comes...", though?)

CILICE:  A hair shirt.  This one's really hard.  It's from a Latin geographical name by way of French.  Depending on how much the spelling of the place-name had been influence by French and how Anglicized the current pronunciation [sɪlɪs] is, it could be spelled a bunch of different ways: SILIS, SILLIS, SILUS, SILLUS...  The girl went with CILIS and was eliminated.  (I threw up my hands at this one.  If only I'd read The Da Vinci Code I would have known it!)

PELORUS:  Some kind of navigational instrument, apparently.  It was pronounced with a schwa in the first and third syllables.  Worse, it's etymology is unknown.  Can you imagine what a kick in the teeth that must be to hear during a spelling bee?  If you at least knew it was Latin or French or whatever you could make an educated guess, but with no language of origin it could anything: POLORUS, PELLORAS, PALLAURICE...  After exhausting her time, the girl guessed PALORIS and was eliminated.  Basically impossible if you haven' t studied it, in my opinion.  (I can't remember which variant I picked but I was wrong, wrong, wrong.)

HELZEL:  "A skin of neck of poultry stuffed usually with fat and flour."  The boy guessed German, and was told it's actually German to Yiddish.  That doesn't leave too many possibilities, and the boy got it right without too much trouble.  (I outsmarted myself by going with HELZL.)

GENIZAH:  A storeroom in a synagogue.  The boy looked unhappy to hear it was a Hebrew word, which I suppose means he thought it was going to give him trouble.  The stress on the last syllable with the vowel [a] was a big hint that it was -AH rather than -A, I thought.  He took the hint and got it right.  (And so I did I.)

RIGAREE:  A kind of ornamentation on glass.  Language of origin: unknown.  Another basically impossible one if you haven't studied it, but the boy had, I guess, because he got it right.  Nice save!  (I went with RIGGERY, which doesn't really make sense in hindsight—that would be some kind of rope sculpture, wouldn't it?)

GROGNARD:  An old soldier.  Knowing it comes from French helps a lot, I think, but the unpronounced final consonant is a real landmine.  (Couldn't they just say grog-nard and help her out?)  The girl spelled it GRONIARE, which would actually be pronounced the same.  (I thought I recognized the word and that it was spelled GRAUNIARD, but it turns out I was thinking of the similarly-spelled nickname of The Guardian.  Doh!)

HELODES:  An adjective (!) meaning wet and spongy.  This word comes from Greek, and doesn't really present too many possible spellings.  The girl got it right without much trouble (and so did I).  Articulatory Phonetics Tangent: when she was shown in a close-up while pronouncing the word, you could see that she was doing an odd thing when pronouncing the final S: she pulled her top lip taut and down over her upper teeth, producing a particularly loud sibilant.  Is that a common allophone of S in English?  It sounded a little bit like a lisp, but not exactly.

SCHUHPLATTLER:  A very goofy-sounding Bavarian courtship dance.  A German word must be a relief after the French words, since you're less likely to be torpedoed by a silent letter, and the fact that the dance involve slapping your feet must have been a hint that it contained the word schuh 'shoe'.  The boy got it right without much effort.  (Even with an assist from The Wife on SCHUH-, I still got it wrong, spelling the rest -PLOTTLER.)

ABSEIL:  The descent of a vertical surface by sliding down a rope.  Another German word with final devoicing, this time in the first syllable, so if you don't know it, it could be either ABSEIL or APSEIL.  The boy either knew it or guessed right.  (I actually knew this word, which made me feel smart, a nice change of pace.)

TRITICALE:  A kind of wheat.  There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who remember that the wheat the tribbles were eating in "The Trouble with Tribbles" was quadro-triticale, and those who are culturally illiterate.  The boy got it right, so he must be one of the former.  Get that man a set of Spock ears!  (I got this right too, obviously.)

CACHALOT:  A sperm whale.  The boy immediately looked very excited and knew that the language of origin was French.  It must be a relief to get up to the microphone and be handed a word you instantly know you know.  Having been handed the word on a silver platter, he then proceeded to choke on it, spelling it CACHELOT.  Ouch!  I'll bet he replays that moment over and over in his head for the next seventy years.  (Again, I knew this word, this time because it's the title of an Alan Dean Foster novel.  Hey, this is starting to turn into a Linguistics in SF post!)

FAUCHARD:  A long-handled medieval weapon.  It's from French, so this word present the usual difficulty in going from pronunciation to spelling (as opposed to the reverse, which is much more straightforward).  The first syllable could be either FAU or FO, and the final D is unpronounced.  The boy went with FAUCHAR—so close!—and was eliminated.  (I, like any good D&D geek, knew this word.  Ask me about my bill-guisarme!)

RANDKLUFT:  A kind of ice chasm.  Another German word, and pretty simple except for the D, which, because of our old nemesis final devoicing, could have been a T.  The boy spelled it without giving it too much thought, so I suspect he new the word.  (I think I got this right, though I was tempted to go with a double F.)

EPAULEMENT:  A kind of embankment.  French, and so underdetermined by pronunciation, but it didn't give her any trouble.  (I forgot the medial E, spelling it EPAULMENT.)

LAQUEAR:  A panel in a vault ceiling.  It's Latin, and the two pronunciations [lækwiəɹ] and [lækwiaɹ] didn't leave too much room for variant spellings, though [i] in the second syllable could be troublesome.  The boy spelled it quickly and correctly.  (I paid too much attention to the definition and went with LACQUIAR, also flubbing the second-to-last vowel.)

ROGNON:  A small round mass of rock.  With hardly a pause, the boy spelled this one correctly.  Studying pays off again, I guess.  (I totally blew this one, spelling it RONIOLLE.  Turns out you have to listen to the word, and you'd think I'd have learned my lesson about -GN- from GROGNARD.)

ANISEIKONIA:  A defect of binocular vision.  From Greek elements combined in Latin, and really hard.  Almost every vowel or consonant could be spelled multiple ways.  ANIPSYCHONIA?  ANISICHONEA?  He went with ANICICONIA—probably an unforced error, since -CI- is unlikely in a Greek word and unlikely to be pronounced [saj]—and was eliminated.  (I guessed it was AN- 'not' + -IS- 'same', but had no idea after that.  I would never have come up with -SEIK-.)

OBEREK:  A Polish folk dance.  The Polish origin makes a huge difference—when I first heard it pronounced, I thought it was going to be from French and spelled AUBERIC.  The boy made a good guess but the schwa in the last syllable tripped him up.  He spelled it OBEROK and was eliminated.  (I guessed right!  My Polish ancestors would be proud.)

CYANOPHYCEAN:  A blue-green alga.  This Greek word looks like a real mouthful, but I think, given time and fewer camera, it's actually not too hard to puzzle out.  CYANO- has to be from the word for blue, there's only one way to spell [f] in Greek.  Assuming you guess the -Y-, that just leaves the last syllable, and as long as you avoid the Latinate suffixes pronounced [ʃən] (like -TION), it's doable.  In the stress of the moment, though, the girl was tripped up by the suffix and spelled it CYANOPHYTION.  (I got to the same place, knew -TION couldn't be right, but couldn't come up with -CEAN either.)

[At this point, they were down to two spellers, so they switched to the championship word list, or, as I like to call it, the Oh-My-God-You-Must-Be-Kidding-Me word list.  There are only 25 words on that list, and if they both survive through all 25, the two remaining spellers are declared co-champions.  This absurd result is also known as "communism".]

ZOILUS:  One given to unjust quibbling.  It's from a Greek name, presumably this guy's.  (Hey, a grammarian!)  There are several possibilities in the vowels, again, especially in the English pronunciation where the last two vowels are schwas.  The boy seemed pretty confident, suggesting he'd studied it, and got it right.  (I went with ZOELIS.)

VITULINE:  Like a calf or veal.  This one's surprisingly easy, I think.  It's from Latin, and if you know the word for veal in Italian is vitello, the two pronunciations given (ending with [ajn] and [ən]) made it pretty straightforward.  The boy spelled it correctly.  (And so did I.)

PAPPARDELLE:  A kind of pasta.  Since it's from Italian, you might think it'd be easy, but since the English pronunciation doesn't maintain the geminate consonants, there are at least four possible spellings.  Of course, if you're familiar with the word like the boy, it's easy.  (I went with PAPARDELLE.)

VIDELICET:  "That is to say; namely."  This is straight Latin, which makes it easy to start with, and then they provided both the English pronunciation ([vɪdɛlɪsɛt]) and a nearly Classical Latin pronunciation ([videlɪkɛt]).  It's hard to mess it up with that much information, and the boy spelled it without trouble.  (Me too!)

YOSENABE:  A kind of soup.  Hey, a Japanese word!  That really narrows down the possible spellings, the the Japanese Romanizations are very consistent, but the second syllable was pronounced with a schwa, making it a little tricky.  Still, the boy spelled it correctly.  (I think I got this one wrong, embarrassingly, spelling it YOSANABE.)

CORYZA:  A respiratory disease.  Yet another medical term from Greek.  The boy very quickly spelled it CHORYZA (which was my guess as well) but was wrong.  How do you get a C followed by a vowel in a Greek word, anyway?  (Note to Canadians: I warned you before about zed, and now you see where that kind of thing leads.  You have only yourselves to blame, eh?)  This error meant that if the other speller got his word right, he'd be the winner.

SERREFINE:  The boy fairly vibrated with excitement when he heard this word—he said later he knew it immediately, having studied it—and spelled it correctly, becoming the champion.  (I'd been spoiled by a news article, so I already knew how it was spelled.)

The winner of the Bee, Evan O'Dorney, was interviewed briefly after his victory.  He was charmingly deep, deep in his awkward phase and extremely nerdy to boot.  When asked why he had said before the competition that he didn't actually like spelling bees, he explain that what he really loved was doing math and composing music.  Spelling, he explained, is "just a bunch of memorization".  (Possibly not the most tactful thing to say after eliminating everyone else.)  When asked if he wanted to reassess how much he liked the National Spelling Bee, he looked confused for a second, then held his ground: "Are you saying I'm supposed to like it more?"  After a little cajoling, he was willing to allow that he liked it "maybe a little bit" more.

Congratulations, Evan!  Enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
11:20 PM in Linguistics , Television | Submit: | Links:

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c88ad53ef00e0097e72148833

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Blogging the 2007 Bee:

Comments

Good for Evan for deflating the mystique behind spelling bees. It *is* "just a bunch of memorization". There are geeky pseudo-sports like the science and math olympiads that actually encourage thinking, but memorizing the spelling of words is just creepy and reinforces the bad idea that education is just imparting random facts to pupils.

Posted by: Jonathan Badger at Jun 13, 2007 4:07:57 AM

"The mystic kept searching for the root of all mysteries, the urgrund from which come all contrasts such as heaven and hell, happiness and sorrow." Heavy! Imagine being faced with that while you trying to keep your cool. (Shouldn't it be "...comes...", though?)

Nope. The subject of that verb is "contrasts".

Posted by: Marcos at Jun 13, 2007 6:34:09 AM

I enjoyed it a great deal; I was rooting for the Canadian gal, but Evan certainly deserved it. Some comments:

The boy spelled it APIZEM, a perfectly plausible guess

Not really. If you know it's from Greek, apo- should be a no-brainer. There's no api- prefix in Greek, and few Greek words start with that combination of letters.

PELORUS: ... Worse, its etymology is unknown.

So says M-W, but I'm not sure why. The OED says it's from Pelorus, "the name of Hannibal's pilot in some Roman texts," and I don't see why M-W would reject that out of hand. If they had said it's from a Roman name, it would have been a lot more straightforward to spell.

HELODES: An adjective (!) meaning wet and spongy.

I was also taken aback by the classification, and had to go look it up in the Big Dic to verify it. But of course -odes is a common Greek adjectival ending, so I guess I shouldn't have been so shocked.

ANISEIKONIA: ... From Greek elements combined in Latin, and really hard.

No kidding, and especially hard (let's face it, impossible if you don't already know the word) because it breaks the rules of classical-derived English spelling. This word is from Greek aniseikonia (i.e., an-is(o)-eikon-ia, 'un-equal-image-ness'), and it should be anisiconia in English. The only reason for the bizarre spelling is the decline of classical education coupled with the smug ignorance of twentieth-century scientists with regard to such things (I note that the first use is in a 1934 issue of Dartmouth Coll. Dept. Res. Physiol. Optics—shame on you, Dartmouth!).

In the stress of the moment, though, the girl was tripped up by the suffix and spelled it CYANOPHYTION. (I got to the same place, knew -TION couldn't be right, but couldn't come up with -CEAN either.)

Just curious: why do you say "-TION couldn't be right"? It's a perfectly good Greek suffix (cf. himation).

VIDELICET: I see M-W, unlike the OED, does not recognize the "correct" (because it's a long e in Latin) traditional pronunciation vi-DEE-liset, which I used to use fairly consistently.

How do you get a C followed by a vowel in a Greek word, anyway?

By having a Greek word starting with kappa omega. Colophon, anyone?

Posted by: language hat at Jun 13, 2007 7:57:17 AM

Just curious: why do you say "-TION couldn't be right"? It's a perfectly good Greek suffix (cf. himation).

Is it usually pronounced [ʃən], though? My dictionary says himation is pronounced [hɪmætiən].

I see M-W, unlike the OED, does not recognize the "correct" (because it's a long e in Latin) traditional pronunciation vi-DEE-liset, which I used to use fairly consistently.

I'm impressed that you've had occasion to speak this word aloud. I mostly end up with pseudo-Classical reading pronunciations in my head for Latin-into-English borrowings. Imagine my surprise the first time I heard sine die spoken out loud.

By having a Greek word starting with kappa omega. Colophon, anyone?

Well, I guess this is still more evidence that I don't know much about Greek. I should learn more Greek...

Posted by: The Tensor at Jun 13, 2007 10:54:22 AM

There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who remember that the wheat the tribbles were eating in "The Trouble with Tribbles" was quadro-triticale, and those who are culturally illiterate.

This sentence, despite identifying me as culturally illiterate, made me quite happy. Probably unreasonably so.

Posted by: David Benton at Jun 13, 2007 11:14:09 AM

Good for Evan for deflating the mystique behind spelling bees. It *is* "just a bunch of memorization". There are geeky pseudo-sports like the science and math olympiads that actually encourage thinking, but memorizing the spelling of words is just creepy and reinforces the bad idea that education is just imparting random facts to pupils.

I disagree. While there is a lot of memorization, understanding the rules of spelling and pronunciation of other languages, especially Latin, Greek, and French, is critical to puzzling out the words they haven't memorized. I find that pretty impressive, especially for 12 year olds.

Posted by: The Wife at Jun 13, 2007 5:55:01 PM

My dictionary says himation is pronounced [hɪmætiən].

Yeah, but that's because himation is not a "real" part of the English vocabulary -- it hasn't been naturalized, it's just a foreign word with a green card. I wasn't using it as an English word but as an example of a Greek word with a -tion suffix. I can't at the moment come up with such a word that was borrowed long enough ago to be pronounced [ʃən], but that would be the natural pronunciation. In other words, I see no barrier to a hypothetical Greek word κυανοφύτιον borrowed as cyanophytion and pronounced like cyanophycean.

Also, I agree with The Wife.

Posted by: language hat at Jun 15, 2007 6:28:00 AM

Also, I agree with The Wife.

Always a wise decision.

Posted by: The Wife at Jun 15, 2007 1:31:39 PM

abseil is common in British English (US equivalent rappel) and pronounced ['ab.seil] (or ['ab.sIl], according to dictionaries). I would never have recognized AHD's ['ap.zaIl], but then neither does MW.

Posted by: mollymooly at Jul 19, 2007 7:27:18 AM