Speling B

“Autochthonous” won the National Spelling Bee for 14-year-old David Tidmarsh of South Bend, Indiana. It means indigenous. He’d previously spelled “arete,” “sophrosyne,” “sumpsimus,” and “serpiginous.”

Akshay Buddiga, a 13-year-old from Colorado Springs, collapsed on stage, then got up and nailed “alopecoid.” That means like a fox. He came in second.

This year’s bee was picketed. Seven members of the American Literacy Society carried signs reading: “I’m thru with through,” “Spelling shuud be lojical,” and “Spell different difrent.”

The protesters’ complaint: English spelling is illogical. And the national spelling bee only reinforces the crazy spellings that lead to dyslexia, high illiteracy, and harder lives for immigrants.

As Matt Rosenberg says: “Thay hv uh guh poyn. Aftral, solongzwe kenunstan chutha, s’probm?”

Update: Corsair the Rational Pirate links to a sad story about Ashley White, the black girl from Washington, D.C. who was one of the spelling bee contestants featured in the wonderful movie Spellbound. An unwed mother, White had given up her college plans until Pam Jones, a woman who saw the movie, helped her apply to Howard University.

Like her grandmother, mother and several aunts and cousins before her, White was a teenage mother. And despite her love for her daughter, Dashayla, then about 2 months old, she was deeply disappointed in herself.

“I was always someone who wanted to be different — who wanted to work harder, who wanted to achieve more, who wanted to succeed,” she said. Instead, “I was basically repeating my family history of teenaged pregnancy. I felt like a failure because everyone had such high expectations for me and thought that I would be the one who would break the cycle.”

. . . (White) watched “Spellbound” again and was struck, she said, by the determined girl she had been. “I was strong. I had a lot of self-confidence. I was hungry for education and to be victorious,” she said. “From that instant, I changed. . . . I realized that the me being discouraged — that wasn’t me.”

She took six courses at Howard last semester and made the dean’s list with a 3.8 average — studying for finals in the homeless shelter while caring for Dashayla and waging a telephone campaign to find housing. With a few pieces of furniture donated by SOME (So Others Might Eat), White moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Southeast last week.

She has already assumed $6,000 in student loans and expects to have tens of thousands of dollars in debt before she graduates — which she fully intends to do despite formidable odds. According to a 1996 study, 1.5 percent of teenage mothers receive their college degrees by the time they are 30.

“In order to achieve something, you have to have the commitment. You have to say, ‘I’m going to take the time and focus on this one thing and I’m going to get something out of it,’ ” she said.

Perhaps it’s not a sad story, after all.

About Joanne


  1. BigFire says:

    Yep, that sound like Mark Twain (or MJ Shields)’s plan to simply spelling:

    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

    Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

  2. Quayle Spelling Curse Lifted by 14-Year-Old Hoosier

  3. the bee was engrossing (that kid from SD was great) but it was kind of depressing to see how much smarter than me these 14 year olds were. 🙁

  4. Well, I can see publishers pushing this idea — after all, all the old books would have to be reprinted in the new spelling.

    What’s funny is that this is far from the first time the spelling-reformists have made a push. We have spelling reformers to thank for the spelling of “debt”, originally “dette”. We got the word from French, but these learned men said “Well, it originated from the Latin debitare, so we should add a b to the spelling to reflect this history.” Likewise, we got an extra d in adventure (the French aventure vs. the Latin advenire) and a b for doubt (doute v. dubitare). Our other silent letters once were not silent (so Monty Python was not so far off with the “ca-nigguts”). And that infamous silent “e” is due to the vowel shift.

    Indeed, English started out with “logical” spelling – things were spelled as they were pronounced. But over time pronunciations changed. I don’t think it’s a good idea to change the spelling each time we change our pronunciations. And then whose dialect will get to prevail? Will “oil” be spelled “url” in the South? Will Bostonians be eating “bananers”? The whole thing is stupid.

  5. meep,

    “Oil” is spelled “Earl” in the south. Y’all please make a note of this.

  6. The word alopecoid is not found in the MSN Encarta online Dictionary.

  7. Otto Kathanus says:

    It’s “illogical” only from some persnickety systemic or phonetic point of view. George Bernard Shaw threw similar tantrums, the puritanical socialist he was. I say long live the organic roots of English and the messy creative glorious rainforest of language that it is.

    It isn’t the world’s standard language for science for nothing.

  8. When I was in Costa Rica, a lot of bi-lingual people told me that English was easier to speak than Espanol, but it was a bitch to spell. I agreed.

    My hat is off to every kid in the spelling bee.

  9. Ken Two says:

    Nice to see a public school student win. But I am distrubed by Dave’s post… “it was kind of depressing to see how much smarter than me these 14 year olds were.”

    Being able to spell is not the same as being able to reason… to think. But it tells us something about a kid’s character, and is a marvelous achievement. The discipline these kids show will prove valueable no matter what they choose to do with their lives.

    This morning Bill Bennett ended his radio program Morning in America with the recorded broadcast of the winner spelling, haltingly, the last word. It was quite impressive.

  10. I’m still a little resentful of the fact that the spelling bee can command TV time and big scholarships, whereas some really amazing academic competitions are totally neglected. How many people know about ARML, for example, the American Regions Math League, going on this weekend at three sites simultaneously with about 1500 of the top math students in the country?

  11. Bruce H. says:

    >> The word alopecoid is not found in the MSN Encarta online
    >> Dictionary

    Not in the OED, either. But Google coughs up 343 instances.

  12. The host of a Milwaukee sports talk radio devoted a segment to Akshay Buddiga’s recovery from his faint, which he felt ranked with any accomplishment by an athlete playing hurt.

    I affect simplified spelling online for a few words, most often “thru” for “through” but that is partly to save keystrokes. Most spelling bee words are difficult because of obscurity not illogic. The competition that should have been picket would have been one at which students were tested on how to pronounce obscure words (my favorite is Brough, the motorcycle T.E. Lawrence rode) based on the spelling. Brough is pronounced “bruff”, and dubious is not pronounced “dubshsuss”.

  13. “Picketed” not “picket”. That was sloppiness, not reform.

  14. well, my personal “modernized spelling” pet peeve is the spelling of “definitely” as “definately”

    v. common on the Internet, but it always makes me grind my teeth. I certainly hope that it isn’t seen as the standard spelling, 20 years from now.

    At one time, a lot of writers spelled words like they thought they should be spelled. They didn’t have to edit Lewis’ and Clark’s journals to make them readable for nothing. (And my understanding is it was even worse 100 years before Lewis and Clark).

  15. The complexities of English spelling do not “lead to dyslexia.” How can weird spelling rules cause a brain disorder? If that were true, we’d all be dyslexic. These protesters seem to be trying to impose the PC victim mentality on a competition that celebrates hard work and achievement. Considering that so many of these kids are immigrants or children of immigrants, I don’t think English spelling is as big a barrier to assimilation as these whiners seem to think it is.

  16. I know about ARML, and Mathcounts, and even the Math Olympiad… as do lots of people. Indeed, a book called Count Down about the U.S. 2000 Math Olympiad team was published this year, and I read it. It’s pretty good.

    In any case, the spelling bee gets coverage, as do poker tournaments and dog competitions, because they provide great video. Even the relay portion of ARML (do they still have that? I last went to ARML in 1990) isn’t that much to look at. It’s kinda difficult to provide coverage for math competitions at high levels. Now I’ve done math relays that are very funny to watch, but they weren’t serious competitions…

  17. George, uh no. Oil is pronounced with a long O and an L in the south, no R or, more importantly, Y consonant sound. Trust me, it’s last remnant of my rural VA accent (I’ve lived in NoVa too long) and my Yankee-born wife teases me about it to no end.

  18. But as my daughter pointed out, he also had “kiwi”. But then, she is a little biased as one the people tied for #8 is a good friend of hers, Chloe Bordewich, also a public school student. Having coached Chloe in softball 4 of the last 5 years, a well rounded kid, which I expect that most of these kids are. Chloe is active in many things, but at her insistence, not pushed by her parents. She also left DC last night to come home today for a band concert, and is returning to DC now for the rest of the festivities.

  19. Akshay Buddiga, a 13-year-old from Colorado Springs, collapsed on stage, then got up and nailed “alopecoid.”

    Call me a cynic, but I didn’t buy that at all. I’ve seen better acting in a dive like that in any given soccer foul dive.

    The kid must have been laughing his ass off afterwards–he made the news headlines AND he bought himself a little more time to get the spelling right.

  20. The person I knew who pronounced oil as “earl” was from Oklahoma, which I reckon would be considered Southern by some folk. I’ve also encountered both long O and “awe” from various parts of the southern portion of the country.

  21. John from OK says:

    I haven’t heard anyone say “Earl” yet, and this is a state with a whole lotta oil.

    Nobody cares about math geeks. I learned that the hard way. Adapt or perish.

  22. I can’t let the comment aabout Dan Quayle go by. He spelled POTATO correctly. The PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER mistakenly corrected him and thus, his supposed mispelling of POTATOE has continued to haunt his legacy! And yes! I agree we need more news about our students’ academic successes.

  23. Curt Wilson says:

    Even if everyone were to agree that phonetic spelling would be a good idea, the question is, whose phonetics? As a couple of posters have mentioned, there are significant regional differences in pronunciation — even just in this country. Try coming up with a phonetic scheme that would make sense in the Scottish highlands, Alabama, and India!

    I once tried to work through a paragraph of sample text of a British proposal for phonetic spelling. I was having a heck of a time, until I realized that they were doing things like dropping the silent “r”s at the end of words.

  24. It would be great if everyone in the Spelling Bee went on to fame and fortune. Seems that they don’t, not even one of the kids featured in the recent Spellbound documentary.

    I talk about it here

  25. He spelled POTATO correctly. The PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER mistakenly corrected him and thus, his supposed mispelling of POTATOE has continued to haunt his legacy!

    Not quite the story I recall. He was holding a list provided by the teacher which contained the incorrect spelling. When the student’s spelling didn’t match what was on the sheet, Quayle pronounced it incorrect.

  26. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If you are predisposed to hate someone, one reason is as good as another.

  27. I guess the caravan has moved on, but I was at the west coast ARML site (San Jose State Univerisity) the last two days so wasn’t able to reply — you can find some of the results at http://www.arml.com
    [SF Bay Area came in second nationally, behind the “Thomas Jefferson” team which represents a magnet school in Northern Virginia.]

    I do agree that only some portions of ARML are particularly telegenic [the tiebreaker for the inidivual high scores is pretty intense], but we have trouble even getting mentions in local newspapers — but high school sports teams get loads of coverage.

  28. BART: You’re right on the Dan Quayle issue. I stand corrected. He was reading from flash cards provided by the teacher, and the word was spelled incorrectly on the card. A simple search would have confirmed that. I’ll be more careful.

  29. Kate Gladstone says:

    The supposed “Mark Twain/M. J. Shields” plan to upgrade the spelling system of English (a plan sometimes falsely attributed, these days, to the EEC) actually comes from a satirical 1946 “Astounding Science Fiction” magazine story, “Meihem in ce Klasrum” by Dolton Edwards. People over the years have quoted, misquoted, and misattributed the fictional plan (which actually constitutes the entire story) – though Mark Twain (like many other well-known Americans from Ben Franklin to Teddy Roosevelt) favored upgrading the spelling system of English, he had ideas on the subject quite different from those later presented (as a jest) by Mr. Edwards.

  30. Allan Campbell, Spell 4 Literacy (New Zealand) says:

    ‘Or as 13-year-old contestant (tautologous) Rachel Karas of Flint, Mich., put it: “It’s just spelling. You gotta learn it.” ‘ Unfortunately not all are as gifted in this area as Rachel. And they spend an unjustifiable amount of time trying, time that would be better spent learning something important. Some languages, where learning the names (which are also the sounds) of letters is achieved in the first few months of school, and where words are learned by fonics, using lojic instead of memory, dont have any hangups about spelling, as we do.


  1. Hube's Cube says:


    Via Joanne Jacobs: USA Today reports on several protestors — at the National Spelling Bee!! Now, just what in the world are these folks griping about? “We advocate the modernization of English spelling,” said Pete Boardman, 58, of Groton, N.Y….