June 02, 2006

How do you spell "xenophobia"?

Blogospheric reactions to last night's results from the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which Catharine Close of Spring Lakes, NJ vanquished Finola Hackett of Tofield, Alberta, have tended toward the facetiously jingoistic. "Jersey Girl Triumphs Over Canadian Menace," crows Wonkette. And the blogger on My All Time Top 5 adds: "Honestly, it's hard to come up with a result more satisfying than New Jersey sticking it to Canada in direct competition. (Well, I guess the other girl could have been French.)" If you were wondering about the Canadian participation, it turns out the "national" spelling bee actually accepts contestants from the entire Anglosphere (or at least wherever there's an official sponsor) — this year there was a European speller (Amanda Suarez, winner of the European Spelling Bee), as well as representatives from American Samoa, the Bahamas, Guam, Jamaica, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But a lot of the bloggers' orthographic nationalism was directed toward the words used in the final rounds of the competition. Ursprache beat out Weltschmerz? Kundalini? Izzat? What izzat? And there might have been whispers of conspiracy when Hackett, whose home schooling in Canada naturally includes extensive study of French, kept getting one Gallicism after another: guilloche, douane, machicotage, esquisse, tutoyer. (C'mon! Tutoyer? You're telling me this thing wasn't rigged for bilingual Canadians?)

So how come our spelling bee has been taken over by foreignisms? The obvious answer is that these are the hardest words for most Anglophones to spell. Once you get past the usual Anglo-Saxon roots and Latin and Greek combining forms, things start to get tricky. And more recent borrowings from foreign languages are more likely to have a phonemic/graphemic mismatch from an English speaker's perspective. (Older loanwords very often develop either spelling pronunciations or pronunciation spellings to bring the written representation more into line with what is pronounced.) The kids who train for the spelling bee must therefore be savvy enough to know something of the sound systems of major world languages and how words from those languages get adapted in spoken and written English. That's why it was a bit of shocker when Hackett started spelling Weltschmerz with a v, neglecting a basic rule of German orthography.

Perhaps the best take on the spelling bee's foreign tilt is this finely wrought piece of journalistic satire from The Swift Report:

Group Objects to Words of Foreign Origin in National Spelling Bee

During this year's national spell-off, contestants were forced to puzzle out words of Spanish, Greek, Latin American, homosexual, even French origin. Now some native-born bee watchers say they've had enough. If they get their way, spelling bees from elementary schools to the nation's capital will soon be conducted in English only.

The article goes on to quote a representative from the (fictitious) lobbying group ProEnglishFirst: "Our position is that if you're going to spell in this country you ought to be spelling words that are native to our language." As Wonkette ruefully observes, in these days of rampant linguistic isolationism, the Swift Report piece "doesn't clearly read as satire — which is kinda scary."

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 2, 2006 02:34 PM