Friday, June 02, 2006

Congratulations, Kerry Close!

I'd like to extend my warmest congratulations to Katharine "Kerry" Close, winner of the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Although I didn't watch the telecast myself, I think it's fantastic that the event was broadcast on network television, poor ratings notwithstanding. The rise in enthusiasm for this annual contest is no doubt fueled by recent movies such as "Spellbound" and "Akeelah and the Bee", and it may not last. But it's nice to see a greater fraction of the populace taking interest in a competition that involves something other than hitting balls, singing pop songs, or eating live slugs.

There are those who believe that spelling is an unnecessary skill, particularly in the age of ubiquitous spellcheckers, and that children's time would be far better spent on other pursuits. First, the existence of spellcheckers does not render spelling ability worthless any more than the existence of calculators renders arithmetic ability worthless (although many would also argue the truth of the latter). Spellcheckers aren't foolproof, nor are they always available. Along with most other natural spellers, I get distracted and annoyed when reading error-ridden prose and am likely to extend my disdain to the writing itself. And while I agree that being able to spell some obscure word that would never appear outside a medical textbook is not a useful "life skill", neither are many athletic or artistic skills that we value nonetheless. In this fast-paced age where everyone wants instant gratification, it's hard to look down upon any child for pursuing anything with passion, especially when she learns about persistence and sportsmanship in the process.

I believe the biggest misconception about successful spelling bee preparation is that it's nothing more than memorizing long lists of words. Although that may be a method employed by many contestants, I don't think it's the most effective. The English vocabulary is so large, especially when one includes all the strange technical terms that tend to show up in final rounds of spelling bees, that it is simply impossible to learn every word individually. As with mastery of just about any subject, the key lies in seeing patterns and making connections. I don't think it's a coincidence that every competent speller I know has an above-average understanding of English in general and frequently a good knowledge of at least one foreign language. In this year's bee, the second-place contestant lost because she spelled "weltschmerz" as "veltschmerz", a mistake that no first-year student of German would have made; the winning word was "ursprache", also with German roots. The moral? Study German. And French. And Italian, Latin, and Greek. Even a slight exposure to the vocabulary of those languages goes a long way toward understanding the many English words derived from them.

In my own spelling bee history, I never made it past the second round of the state-level competition in Kansas in 1987, when I tripped on the (then unfamiliar) word "jaundiced". I thus felt a certain kinship with this year's third-place winner, who was eliminated on the word "ictericious". (Incidentally, the Spanish word for "jaundice" is ictericia.) Perhaps it's a small word---of vocabulary---after all.


Anonymous said...

The word should be spelled ictericious like ictericia from latin.

Anonymous said...

The "c" can not be changed to a "t" from latin into english. Kerry Close got it correct.

Language Lover said...

I'm not sure I understand your comments, but I thank you for calling my attention to my apparent misspelling. It's spelled "icteritious", and I guess I'd have gotten it wrong!