The Challenge of Spelling in English
The American spelling bee does not sting, though it makes many children cry, does not produce honey, though it holds other sweet rewards, and does not swarm, though millions of Americans crowd around it every year like worker bees around their queen bee. This bee is not an insect at all; it is a contest of orthography. The contest is simple: a word is spoken and the contestant has to spell it. The contest is hard: the word is from the English language. Spelling bees have been a part of American culture for hundreds of years. In his book American Bee, James Maguire (2006, 54) writes: “The spelling bee, whether fierce or flirtatious, congressional or ...view middle of the document...
The words these kids spell are goliaths. They are multi-syllabic monsters of unknown meaning and origin—at least until the etymology are requested—and very few of the words in the spelling finals have ever been uttered by anyone watching. And there seems to be no end to the bizarre words the English language houses.
It is easy to be swept up in the obvious triumph of those who spell. They are champions. But isn’t their field of honor a bit odd? What have spelling champions done? They have used the language correctly. Are we in such awe of good spelling that we cannot attribute it to the human mind alone? One could object to these questions in the context of the spelling bee by pointing out that the types of words encountered at the National Spelling Bee are Herculean in their difficulty, outliers of the language and not firm ground upon which to speculate about language. Isn’t it odd that success in spelling fairly common English words is considered an extraordinary feat? When you spell a word, you are not creating language, you are repeating an agreed upon usage, following convention. Should any aspect of using language correctly be this hard?
Why is spelling so hard?
Blame the alphabet. You can never tell what sound a letter is going to make. Some-times a letter doesn’t make any sound at all, is silent—and then you’ll find a letter (like the “x” in box) that makes more than one sound in one appearance. As Bryson (1990, 120) points out: “We have some forty sounds in English, but more than 200 ways of spelling them. We can render the sound ‘sh’ in up to fourteen ways (shoe, sugar, passion, ambition, ocean, champagne, etc.)… If you count proper nouns, the word in English with the most varied spellings is air with a remarkable thirty-eight: Aire, Ayr, heir, e’er, ere, and so on.”
Blame the dictionary. Before the dictionary, there was no way to establish correct spelling, and spelling varied widely. The dictionary became a snapshot of the language, and words, once they were collected and fixed, didn’t change as rapidly. Sounds, though, were not captured and so continued to change even while words stayed put in the dictionary.
Blame the Dutch typesetters, who were paid by the line and so stuck additional letters into words. Blame the printing press. According to Peters (1968, 274), “The discrepancies between the way we currently pronounce and spell words may be attributed, in large measure, to the fact that our spelling, mostly inherited from Late Middle English, has remained more or less fixed since c. 1650, unlike the pronunciation of those Late Middle English words.” Peters uses as an example of this pronunciation slippage the word knight which, in the Middle English period was pronounced the way it looks.
Blame it on the history of the English, those British Isles invaded many times by many different languages and then invading other isles and continents with other languages with which to mix. Colonies were like a linguistic...