Friday, March 11, 2011

The Spelling Bee and D-a-d-d-y

Speller No. 9 is studying word lists right up to the last minute
I acquired a bit of local news this past Saturday in the only way permissible as long as I'm engaged in this project. I didn't need to read it in the newspaper or find it on the Web or see it on TV.

I lived through it.

There I was seated and yawning on a Saturday morning, in an auditorium full of parents and family members. We were steeling ourselves for the city-wide spelling bee.

I now know something that I didn't before.  I know who won that spelling bee. More importantly, I am coming to terms with the contradictory fact that I like spelling bees except when I don't like spelling bees.

What I like about spelling bees is that we have a rare opportunity to witness a word under construction. The pronouncer at the podium says the word and the student speller hovers over the microphone, mentally preparing to make for us a thing of beauty.  The lips part, the mouth opens...


In those seconds, human breath creates acoustical waves that are no mere noise. The speller peforms a feat only our species is capable of. From organized sounds emerge symbols representative of our language. These symbols adhere to one another in such a way as to allow us to communicate without being physically present. That is why you can read this sentence made of up these words and know what I am communicating. Yet where am I at the moment you read it? Far, far away... in distance and in time.

As much as the word-nerd in me likes hearing words spelled, there is a certain situation that leads to my not enjoying the spelling bee. It is when our seventh grade son is up on stage, hammering and sawing and putting together a word letter by letter. An all expenses-paid trip to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. this June awaits the winner. The suspense kills me.


If at any pont he says a wrong letter, it's in the air and in microseconds it enters the judges' ears and registers in their brains, and now it can't be taken back. His word house collapses, a fact that will be soberly registered by one of the four judges sitting at the table who reaches toward a bell.


And this is what eventually happens. In the wake of the misspelling, our son, following directions, walks off the stage and goes to the "comfort room." Waiting there are cookies, bottles of water, and his mom who gives him a hug and whisper in his ear that it doesn't matter; we're proud of him.

So our son didn't win. He didn't totally lose either. The city-wide event began with 21 students, fifth grade through eighth. They each had won a spellilng bee at their respective schools, public and private. They were the best spellers their institution had to offer.

Less than an hour later there were 16 empty chairs on stage. Our son was one of the remaining five spellers still in contention.

To ease the tension I felt, I thought of the weeks he'd spent in preparation. He took his study lists of words and read each word out loud multiple times to impress it like a physical thing into his mind.

The word might have been a stone and his brain damp mud.

He would say the characters in sequence over and over:


Then we quizzed him on the words. It was during this process I realized that there are words that I know the meaning of and use from time to time in my writing, and perhaps--on a good day with a strong spelling wind a my back--I can even spell them correctly, BUT I've never heard anyone deploy them in a sentence. This means, lacking an audible model, I am uncertain of how to pronounce the word.

It turned out there were many words like this on the spelling bee list that troubled me in this way.

Is wainscot pronounced "wayne's cot" or "wayne-scoat"?

It's been said that Shakespeare must have known around 60,000 different words although I've heard that an actual word count of his plays and sonnets yields a figure far lower (17,500).

The English language's No. 1 wordsmith...Will
In any event, Elizabethans had the opportunity to be "ear-witnesses" to Shakespeare's command of the English language which by all accounts was prodigious. Presumably, if theater-goers were listening closely and often enough, they would come to know how to pronounce the most unfamiliar words themselves.

Using a word in everyday speech is key to keeping it alive and relevant to ourselves. Words that are never spoken, remain stuck inside books. They are like pressed flowers that await the day the book is opened. Then the word tumbles out. Brittle, faded. Not as useful and "alive" as one might wish.

But even if we know a lot of words, there may be constraining factors in our using them.
Speller No. 9 bides his time...

One doesn't want to use words others don't understand. And it might not be a good idea to sound too literary or as if we are "putting on airs" and bearing down with some kind of class distinction.

Our spoken vocabulary is further impoverished by the cultural influence of the vocabulary we receive from electronic media. The movies and television do not draw upon an extensive vocabulary. It's a simple if not simplistic word pallette.

And what can one say about texting? This medium turns fertile fields for vocabulary into parched patches of tiny screen views where only a few weedy shoots are allowed to sprout.

Shout wher ur wen u a min  Thx

This could be a reason why one study published in a journal contends that a teen in 1950 had a vocabulary of 25,000 words and that today's teen has one of 10,000.

I face a problem that's not going to go away. With so few of us speaking actual smart, non-ordinary spelling bee-type words, even when I'm in a language-appreciative crowd, it's hard for me to use certain wordswithout risking mispronouncing them. I could sound foolish to some rare soul out there who has total mastery of the word.

I think we need a word for these words that out of auditory ignornance I tend to fumble as soon as they come out of my mouth. I wish to call each of them a...

Thanks heavens for pronouncing dictionaries which can be found on-line. Before that I had to turn to a physical dictionary, leaf to the proper word entry, and then try to decipher the esoteric pronunciation and accent marks.

It's much better to hear a real, albeit disembodied voice saying the word and then allow myself to imitate it. Which leads me to my partial personal list of "vergewords" that I'm still working on.


If you hear me saying one of these words and mangling the pronunciation, please give me credit for trying. And then after my cookie in the comfort room, you may kindly, so kindly correct me! - V.W.


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