A few observations about the spelling bee

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Arvind Mahankali,13, of New York who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee (Pic: http://www.spellingbee.com/)

I often think about tens of thousands of words, perhaps even a few hundred thousand, which are destined to languish in the musty pages of dictionaries. Many of them are neglected into obsolescence. I often hear feeble, whiny sounds emanating from my dictionary from words making entreaties to me to use them.

After watching last night’s National Spelling Bee devoured by an inordinately large number of boys and girls of Indian American background (I was told 41% of them were Indian American), I became more curious about the number of dictionary words in existence. To the question how many word there are in the English language, the OED says the following:

“There is no single sensible answer to this question. It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g.dogs = plural noun, dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog?”

The Second Edition of the 20-volume  Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don’t take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.”

The thing to remember about words is that all words are made up. Those which have been enshrined in respectable dictionaries such as the OED and the Webster may appear to have the weight of etymological sanctity. But essentially, all words begin as random sounds put together by either an individual or a community of individuals. Once those sounds are understood by a sufficiently large number of people, they are sanctified by the etymological establishment as words.It is likely that the purists would be offended by my perspective because many of them accord language and words a certain sacredness, even divinity.

It is from this perspective that I watch the National Spelling Bee with mild amusement tinged with irritation. What compounds my irritation are those unseemly nametags/billboards/signs/placards that the contestants are made to wear. I am surprised that the contestants are able to get up and walk at all with those billboards hanging around their necks. They ought to screw up their center of gravity. Can someone at the Scripps National Spelling Bee commission a professional designer to redo those labels please? I am sure the contestants’ sponsor can afford to give each one of them T-shirts printed with their name and other information. But I suppose by now those signs have become a charmingly quirky eccentricity (Deliberate use of quirky and eccentricity together) of the championship.

Last night, the Bee came down to two boys, both of Indian American heritage. Arvind Mahankali, 13, and Pranav Sivakumar, also 13. The winning word for Arvind was knaidel (K is not silent)  which is a German-derived Yiddish word for a small mass of leavened dough. It is a like a dumpling, you know (Know is pronounced no and not ka no, just in case). I know for a fact that many parents and other close relatives of the spelling bee aspirants cut them no slack at all and badger them with words for months on end. It is commendable that many of these children manage to retain their sense of humor in the face of such parental onslaught.

This year what was different about the Bee was that the contestants knowledge of vocabulary was also tested. I presume what it means is that the participants had to break the words down in order to zero in on their meaning. I could be wrong but that’s what I understood.

Reading the dictionary was a favorite pastime for me as a child. So at some level I understand these children’s interests in words for the sake of words. But as they grow older, they would discover that a vast majority of the words they know could die of sheer disuse. Of course, some of these children can always pursue a writing career. However, I will have them know that writing is a tad more than just knowing the words. Even the dictionary knows the words. That does not make it a writer.  

Arvind says he wants to pursue quantum physics as his career. It might do him well to know that in quantum physics he will have to mostly deal with probabilities and not sharply defined words. Congratulations, Arvind Mahankali.

P.S. Here is a new word for those obsessed in spelling words—Spellbeesession. Use in a sentence—I am spellbeesessed with words.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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