Spelling Bees and the Top-Down Dream

I participated in the National Spelling Bee a few decades back, and so I tend to think about it when it rolls around each year. It’s a lot different than it was when I was in it, with live national TV coverage and much bigger money (even allowing for inflation). I don’t watch the Bee — I hurt too much for the kids who go out, because I remember feeling like I had let a bunch of people down, and I wonder if they feel that way too. (Why yes, I do put unreasonable demands on myself occasionally. Why do you ask?)

Another difference between “my” Bee and this year’s is that this year, there were protesters. Yep, the American Literacy Council and England’s Spelling Society showed up to call for simplified phoneticized spelling. They’re hardly the first to get on this particular hobbyhorse — lots of folks have attempted this, all the way back to the 12th Century. G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells both liked the idea, with Shaw even choosing to write his plays in his preferred, non-standard orthography.

This movement reached a sort of peak in the 18th century, as people like Swift called for the “ascertainment” — the fixing or nailing down — of English. These reformers looked to France for inspiration, where l’Academie Francaise was (and remains) the official source for “proper French.” While the reformers meant well, they weren’t successful, as anyone who has had to remember “I before e except after c, or when sounded like a as in neighbor or weigh” can attest.

One of the things I find interesting about the would-be reformers is that they seem to disregard how English develops. English has  what may be the largest vocabulary of any language (depending on how you count these things), and part of that flexibility comes from the fact that there has been no externally fixed body that slows the adaptability of English speakers. Where French has the Academie to maintain its purity, English is the slut of the linguistic village. This has meant that English has developed from the bottom up, based on the needs of its speakers. English has dictionaries, but the editorial boards of those dictionaries are working descriptively far more than prescriptively.

Of course, what all this means is that English is a disorderly language, illogical, impure, and yes, difficult to spell in. On the other hand, it has also developed into the world’s dominant language, and while part of that is due to the ascendancy of first England, then the U.S., I believe that part of it is also due to its ability to change without the sort of top-down intervention that spelling reformers would seem to require. It’s also worth noting that, despite efforts of folks like the Academie, even speakers of French find themselves turning to English to meet their linguistic needs.

So, inherent flexibility and messiness responding spontaneously to the needs and demands of the users, or top-directed rigidity that ultimately doesn’t work, because central bodies can’t anticipate every possible need. I know which one I’ve chosen, and I don’t think I need to spell out how it might apply to other cultural endeavors.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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5 Responses to Spelling Bees and the Top-Down Dream

  1. Rai says:

    Is spelling even a relevant skill in the age of spell check? Since, as I understand it, participants have access to the huge list of difficult words from which the questions are drawn, is this really a diligence and memory contest? Could it change to something else (e.g. Memorization of mathematical formulae, URLs). Call me Beelzebub’s advocate if you must, but please address why our nation invests so much attention and youthful ardor in an obsolete skill. You know I ask, not simply to antagonize you, but because I trust you’ll have a brilliant response.

    • profmondo says:

      Aye don’t no if spelling bees are still relevant, butt we both no that spell czech lyes from thyme two thyme. More realistically, at least when I was in the Bee, there was a book of hard words, but we were liable for any word in the Merriam-Webster (the word I missed wasn’t in the book, for example.)

      In fact, there are other similar competitions in subjects like geography and math/science. For that matter, there may even be virtue in memorizing poetry. All of these are skills that computers may render obsolete, at least in part. Nonetheless, I think that there’s something to be said for possessing first-order knowledge, as well as for diligence and memory. Besides, what if you need to write and spell something when the computer has a virus?

      In my case, I did well in bees because I love words. The bees weren’t an end for which I was aiming — they were just something at which I happened to be good anyway. But if spelling bees (or equivalents in other fields) do help get kids interested in building certain intellectual skills (e.g., vocabulary and/or etymological knowledge), that’s a positive.

      One other point — although I knew I had unusual talents when I was 13, they weren’t really the sort of things that won the esteem of my peers. The Bee brought me into contact with other bright, diligent kids (most of whom were more diligent than I was). In a way, it taught me that there were kids like me beyond Mondo Jr. High School. There’s solace in that, as well.

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