The pleasure and pain of spelling

A spelling bee in Fulton, MD. (Howard County Library System via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Jacques Bailly: Odylic.

Patrick Cox: Can you recognize that voice? Yes, that spelling contest.

Jacques Bailly: Of or relating to a force or natural power thought by some to reside in certain individuals and things and to underlie hypnotism, magnetism and some other phenomena.

Patrick Cox: You learn something new every day. But how’s it spelled?

Contestant: Odylic. O-D-Y-L-I-C.

Patrick Cox: Easy peasy.

Sound of Audience cheering.

Patrick Cox The Scripps National Spelling Bee. This was the climax to the last bee, in 2019. This year, after a break in 2020 because of COVID, organizers have tweaked the rules to avoid the likes of eight-way ties. Everyone wants a single winner, right? Well…I don’t know. It was great to see all of those kids, equally deserving, just celebrating together. And there’s one thing you couldn’t miss when you saw the photos of them with their trophies and raised arms: Seven of the eight were Indian American.

I’m Patrick Cox, and this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them, produced by Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. Indian Americans have dominated Scripps National Spelling Bee for many, many years. In the pod today, Kavita Pillay gives her take on why that’s the case. We’ll conduct a little spelling bee of our own — see how mere humans perform. And we’ll hear from David Wolman, who wrote a book about English spelling, how he really struggled with it as a kid — and how he came to realize that’s not such a shameful thing.

Kavita and I first made a podcast together in 2013, right before that year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. And it was then that I found out that when she was in fifth grade, she’d won her own spelling bee.

Kavita Pillay: In Rocky River, Ohio.

Patrick Cox: And like so many other expert spellers, Kavita was born in the United States to parents who immigrated from India. She’s heard the theories about why Indian Americans dominate spelling bees: Their brains “work that way,” they memorize massive chunks of the dictionary — whatever. Kavita thinks it’s more complicated.

Kavita Pillay: A lot of these kids, pretty much all of them, are being raised by parents who are educated in India, where they were learning English as a second or maybe third language, and where they also had a very strong economic and social incentive to learn it at a very high level. Because if you want to get the best jobs in India, namely if you want to be an engineer or a doctor, you not only have to be good at math and science, you have to be really good at English because that’s the medium of instruction. So these professionals are then coming to the U.S. and having kids who have the advantage of parents who’ve figured out these trickier elements of English in order to be able to perform as professionals here. And the kids are native English speakers. So it kind of makes sense that there’s a lot of Indian American spelling bee champions.

Patrick Cox: So many Indians — including many of these US-based parents — they’ve been exposed to multiple languages. Kavita mentioned them learning English as a second or third language. But chances are they’ll have some limited knowledge of a couple of other languages. Indians are scared of languages, multilingualism is a fact of life. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to make Hindi the national language of India but Kavita says no local language has the power of English.

Kavita Pillay: English has become really the lingua franca. It’s the way that, say, someone from the northern state of Punjab would probably communicate with someone from the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They’re not going to communicate probably in Punjabi or Hindi or or thumbhole. It’s going to be in English. And you also see Roman script, the 26 letter-alphabet, all over the place. You see maybe a Hindi advertisement. It’s written in the 26-letter alphabet, not in the Hindi script itself. So Indians are really familiar with just being flexible about how to spell things using the alphabet.

Patrick Cox: Flexible. That’s a great way of describing Indian mastery of language

Kavita Pillay: So for a lot of Indians in India, especially young Indians, you see this text speak, it’s really pretty rampant. One example, this is an excerpt from an email that my mom received from a family friend’s son who’s an Indian guy in his mid 20s. He is fluent in English. He was educated in English, but he wrote to her after she recently retired and said, what you been up to? How do you spend your retired life? And there’s no capitalization in this. There’s barely any punctuation. There’s a lot of run on sentences in this email. And what is spelled W-A-T. You is spelled with the letter U. Up to becomes one word. I contacted him to ask what turned out to be a kind of naive question. I said, “Well, you know, you’re doing this with your your friends and people, do you do this at school? Do you do this with your boss?” And his answer was, “Of course not!” And I think for these Indian kids who are growing up learning two, three, maybe four languages very early, this is just like adding on a new language. It’s just a very practical way to communicate with your friends and people you know well, rather than having to spell things out and use proper grammar and punctuation.

Patrick Cox: It also sounds like they’re fully confident in English, enough to mess around with the language and code-switch at will. I wonder how how their kids would fare in Spelling Bees. Don’t bet against them.

I couldn’t let Kavita go without putting her spelling chops to the test. So I arranged a little Spelling Bee of our own. Competing against Kavita was Marco Werman, host of The World public radio show — and someone who, in his own words, likes to get things right. You’ll also have to forgive me and Marco for mispronouncing Kavita’s name. OK here goes.

Patrick Cox: Kavita, your first word is accommodate

Kavita Pillay: The C’s are the question, right? So, accommodate A-C-C-O-M-)-D-A-T-E.

Patrick Cox: You’ve done exactly what I do, it’s two M’s. I do it every single time in my spell check. All right. Well, everybody gets a couple of chances here. Marco, Precipice.

Marco Werman: Precipice, P-R-E-C-I-P-I-C-E.

Patrick Cox: One to Marco. Kavita, tarragon.

Kavita Pillay: I don’t know if this matchup is fair! Tarragon T-A-R-R-A-G-O-N.

Patrick Cox: Very good. OK, Marco.

Marco Werman: I’m keeping score by the way, just so you know.

Patrick Cox: Nachtmusik.

Marco Werman: Nachtmusik, from the German obviously. One word?

Patrick Cox: One word.

Marco Werman: N-A-C-H-T-M-U-Z-I-K.

Patrick Cox: Oh, so close, you got the I-K right but it was S-I-K. All right. You still keeping score there Marco?

Marco Weman: Yeah, that’s a zero. Don’t worry, I’m fair.

Patrick Cox: Kavita, Pneumatic.

Kavita Pillay: Okay, I got this one. P-N-E-U-M-A-T-I-C. We’re going to go with that.

Patrick Cox: That’s great. Another one that I never get right. Okay, Marco, here’s the first word that — well, I can tell you what the meaning is because I didn’t know what the meaning was here. A doorkeeper, durwan.

Marco Werman: I’m thinking it comes from a gatekeeper, like at a border, like a French douanier. So I’m going to say D-O-U-A-N-E.

Patrick Cox: That is all down to my pronunciation, my British English pronunciation. You know I think that you need to fire me because I can’t render it in proper American English.

Marco Werman: OK, that’s a zero for me.

Patrick Cox: Kavita, Fantoccini which means stringed or mechanical puppets.

Kavita Pillay: Fantoccini. OK, since I’m guessing it’s from Italian, I’m going to say F-A-N-T-O-C-C-I-N-I. It’s my best guess.

Patrick Cox: That is awesome. Nice job, OK. I think Kavita is in the lead.

Marco Werman: She’s definitely ahead by two lengths here.

Patrick Cox: Okay, Marco, here’s another word that I’ve got no idea what it means — or I had no idea what it means. A device for nuclear fusion. And the word is tokamak.

Marco Werman: Tokamak. Can I try writing this down? T-A-C-H-O-M-A-C-H.

Patrick Cox: I like the sound of that much better than the way it’s actually spelled. T-O-K-A-M-A-K .

Patrick Cox: Okay Kavita, how about this, picaresque.

Kavita Pillay: Picaresque P-I-C-A-R-E-S-Q-U-E. I know I knew this at one point, I hope I still do.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I think that’s one of the very few that I also could have gotten.

Marco Werman: Yeah, which way is the spelling bee skewed now? Go ahead, give us two more. Otherwise, I’m going to get skunked here.

Patrick Cox: Hey, Marco, you lived in Rome for a while, right? So you can deal with a little Italian…

Marco Werman Arugula!

Patrick Cox: Foggara, meaning an underground water conduit. Maybe it’s pronounced, fo-GAH-ra.

Marco Werman: That helps. F-O-G-A-R-A

Patrick Cox: Doesn’t help enough.

Marco Werman: Ahhh! F-O-G-G-A-R-A

Patrick Cox: That’s it,

Marco Werman: Another zero.

Patrick Cox: Okay, I’m going to re-skew it. Marco, you’ll be very happy with this one because Kavita, I can’t imagine that this is spell-able. It’s certainly not pronounceable. This is a Belgian dog breed, Schipperke.

Marco Werman: It’s a serious disadvantage when the moderator can’t even pronounce the word.

Kavita Pillay: Oh my, Ship-erka? Is that what you said? So there’s some crazy vowels or crazy consonants in there. S-C-H-I-P-O-U-R-K-K-A, we’ll just go all out.

Patrick Cox: Well, you started well. The first half of the word was great. S-C-H-I-P-P-E-R-K-E. Who knew? Marko, your last one. This is a word for chicory and the word is witloof.

Marco Werman: Chicory, which is a plant that kind of looks like frisée salad or can be used, I guess, as a coffee substitute. So what’s the word again?

Patrick Cox: Witloof.

Marco Weman: W-H-I-T-L-O-E-F.

Patrick Cox: Well, the contestant in the National Spelling Bee also got that wrong. I think we have a winner.

Marco Werman: It’s a consolation if that person was Indian American, otherwise it doesn’t count. I’m just like a loser like everybody else.

Patrick Cox: W-I-T-L-O-O-F.

Marco Werman: Ah, it was a double O. I was thinking it was probably German or something.

Patrick Cox: Okay Kavita you win!

Marco Werman: Kavita wins four to one. Great, nice job.

Kavita Pillay: I just reinforced stereotypes about Indian Americans haven’t I?

Marco Werman: And I’ve just reinforced stereotypes about second generation slackers. So there we go.

Patrick Cox: After the break, why English spelling is so crazily complicated. Or if you think about another way, why every English word contains its own micro history.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke audio collective. Another Hub and Spoke podcast is Iconography. This is a podcast about icons: things with meaning in our lives. Meanings that we don’t fully understand. Like, The Full English Breakfast. The Spice Girls. Plymouth Rock. Iconography host Charles Gustine helps bring that meaning into focus. There’s an episode I especially like about bridges and the hold they have on us. Check out Iconography and all of the Hub & Spoke shows.

Patrick Cox: Now to the inconsistencies of English spelling and the various attempts to quote “fix” that. David Wolman wanted to get to the bottom of this, not least because he couldn’t spell to save his life when he was a kid, and maybe he could have benefited from rules: rational rules where the sound of a word and the way it’s written actually correspond. Like they do in say, Korean, or Finnish. Not English. So anyway, David wrote a book about English spelling and the many attempts to rationale it, to reform it. The book i is more phonetically rational He wrote a history of those attempts. I spoke with David in 2010. He told me then about these spelling-obsessed people he’d been spending time with.

David Wolman: A couple of years ago. I learned about this group called The Simplified Spelling Society. And these are English speakers and writers who live throughout the English speaking world and, of course, hiding in corners of cyberspace, who believe that English spelling is much more difficult than it need be and that children are unnecessarily challenged in school and that foreigners have too much difficulty acquiring fluency. And they even will truck out arguments like we are wasting money on copy editors. I wanted to know a little bit more about this group. It turns out that they will stand outside the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. with picket signs. They are not protesting the bee. They are quick to tell me, and they love the young spellers, but they find this is a terrific opportunity to raise awareness about the cause, as they say. And so in 2007, I joined the Simplified Spelling Society and went to Washington to stand out there curbside with them to see what life is like protesting English spelling from the inside. And it turns out that as outlandish as this idea sounds and is in some ways, undeniably, it is outlandish. These people are the modern day torchbearers of what is in fact a centuries old campaign that has included the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson — and of course, here in the States, Noah Webster. Webster was an adamant spelling reformer. And so I set out to try and tell the story of the spelling reform movement through the ages. And as it continues today.

Patrick Cox: Did you join this group merely to have access to the other members and be able to interview them? Or is it…

David Wolman: Or am I in the tank?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I mean, you also mentioned that you yourself have struggled with spelling words correctly.

David Wolman: Correct. So I’m a terrible speller. And this was hard on me as a kid growing up. You know, it wasn’t something that required psychotherapy. And I didn’t have a severe learning disability, but but I was a crummy speller. And I have a younger brother who is a spelling whiz. And this was cause for some frustration and humiliation at the dinner table sometimes. And so that was also part of my motivation to look into this topic. I am not in the tank, I should say, with members of the Simplified Spelling Society. So I joined primarily to gain access to them for the interviews. You know, they knew I was chronicling their adventure, but I figured if I was to take up all that time, the least I could do was pony up the 35 dollars to support their cause. I was out there holding my picket sign. I think it said, “Let’s end the ‘I’ in friend” during the spelling bee. And it turns out these people are just marvelous. They’re so charming. You know, they’re they were the target of so much anger from from passers by on the streets of Washington, D.C., who would say to them, “With global warming and Iraq and all of these other problems in the world, you mean to tell me you’re protesting, spelling? This is ridiculous!” And that they would just politely smile, say thank you, perhaps try and hand out a pamphlet. But really, people were looking at them like they were aliens. And yet there’s, you know, nestled beneath what seems like a wacky idea are some really interesting questions about language and language usage and authority. And even there there are interesting questions about culture, I think, and of course, history. You look back at some of these people, Melville Dewey is probably my favorite character in the story of spelling. Here’s a guy who was so committed to this cause he really believed it would bring about world peace and he changed the spelling of his last name to Dui for a short stint. It didn’t have the same connotations. Then he was the head of something called the Simplified Spelling Board. And at the turn of the last century, the board was supported by President Roosevelt. It was funded by Andrew Carnegie and Dewey and many sort of high ranking professors from around the country would meet annually at the Waldorf Astoria over dinner with a custom-made menu full of Shakespeare quotes and little ditties about language. And they would talk about their campaign and how to raise awareness. And they really believed that this would change the world because English was obviously taking over. And if everyone could communicate more clearly in English, well, then of course miscommunication would be eliminated. And miscommunication, as they believed, was at the root of all the evil and all the conflict in the world. I mean, it’s really high minded stuff considering it’s just spelling.

Patrick Cox: It’s just spelling. Well, you mentioned that there are some cultural questions here and some questions of authority. This certainly is the sense that if you can’t spell properly and you know where I grew up in England, it’s just the same as in the U.S. that there’s something wrong with your education. In Britain, there’s something wrong with your class, maybe even. And that you maybe should feel ashamed of it. It sounds as though that was something that you felt across the dinner table from your spelling whiz of a brother.

David Wolman: Well, it’s true. You know, like it or not, spelling is sort of a proxy for intelligence. And and I don’t now I have a dog in this particular fight, but I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. You know, spelling is something we do. It’s something we need. And of course, it’s an indicator of a particular type of intelligence. But through the ages, you know, more so even than pronunciation. Spelling was as quick and dirty way to judge someone’s education, their class and really their smarts. You know, for me, what was interesting in this project was to understand this connection between spelling and correct spelling and virtuous behavior. It’s interesting when you compare it to something like arithmetic. I have a friend who’s an electrical engineer and a terrible speller, and he said he’s always getting so much grief from his mother about being a terrible speller. And his question to her was, “Well, why is it that you’re giving me a hard time? Because I can’t remember how to spell accommodation. But you can’t divide a restaurant, check into three equal parts without breaking out a calculator.” What I like about that anecdote is really that it does open up this question of, you know, how significant is not just accurate spelling, I believe in accurate spelling, but sort of is its top tier spelling and being able to do what it recall, you know, is spelling really just a means to communicate words and ideas or spelling somehow associated with virtuous behavior? And for a long time, it was really the latter.

Patrick Cox: I wonder with the beginnings of English whether it was because even then, I mean, you describe in the book about monks and scribes who would write religious scripture, but they would do so in relative isolation. And so they would be coming up with their own spelling or that wouldn’t be a regularized spelling among them. I mean, at that stage, it would have been tough to have viewed correct spelling, such as it was, as a sign of virtuosity.

David Wolman: Well, this is one of the things I love about the story of spelling and talking to people about the subject, because everyone in their time thinks that the English they use is the right English, is the proper English. And of course, the the spelling code is fixed and settled and that’s that. And of course, for centuries that wasn’t the case. So before the printing press, English was all over the map. And as you said, you had these monks in various pockets of England really just winging it. They were writing texts for a particular audience. And so they would try and use phonetic representations of words to the best of their ability. So it would be easily read by that audience. And then in a village 20 miles away, perhaps that phonetic construction would look a lot different to convey the same ideas. And then as English grew, it just got wilder and wackier. You have this time period, not long after Chaucer, where a lot of intellectuals are still somewhat insecure about English’s station in the world. They still look to Italian and Greek and Latin as much more prestigious and expressive. And so they would doctor words. They inserted a B in the word debt, for example. And they also I think they added the O to people and the CH to the scholar. And the idea here was to make the word look more Latin or look more Greek. They added the H to rhyme in theater and these other words. So so they’re already changing things back then. And then you fast forward another century and everyone is full of pride about English and English spelling. And no language in the world is as expressive as the mother tongue. And so then they start lopping off sort of these foreign editions, these little bits of pollutants to the language, as they saw it. And and you see this throughout the ages. You know, the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, he believed that no English word should ever end with the letter C. So it became public and music and critic, all of them ending with CK. And then, of course, with Noah Webster in the States, well, he wanted to drop that extra L in traveler and he thought that the the U in British spellings of valor and parlor and color, he called this a palpable absurdity. And so he next to the you and then, of course, he got rid of the K that Johnson had briefly added on to a lot of the words with little success. And you still you see this doctoring and changing in this evolution through the ages. And yet, you know, you still have to sit fourth graders down today and give them a spelling test. And that’s appropriate. You know, I’m not and not a spelling anarchist, but it is interesting that something that we perceive as so straightforward and so simple. How do you spell a word? Well, just look it up. And yet words are fluctuating and moving much more than I think those very strict teachers would like to admit.

Patrick Cox: Right. And then there’s another example that you bring up, which was the GH. in ghost or ghastly, which probably comes from the Dutch. But you have other words that sound the same at the beginning that dropped the GH like girl which was originally spelt G-H-E-R-L-E. But now it doesn’t have an H in it. There’s no one in the English language, unlike in other languages, saying, hey, wait a minute, let’s drop all the H’s, let’s keep all the H’s, let’s have some regularity.

David Wolman: Right. So English, as one famous linguist put it, English is flamboyantly inconsistent. And of course there is a huge number of words in the lexicon that are regular spellings, as in what you hear is what you get and you can construct the word phonetically. We have this truckload of irregular spellings. But what we have never had in English, despite calls for it, is some kind of language authority, like the French, L’Académie française. You know, we just never believed in sort of a roundtable of high priests, of language usage, telling us all how it should be. And this is something that I think English speakers kind of take for granted and that we should really be proud of. And of course, the the language policing in other countries doesn’t really work. If kids on the streets of Paris want to be quoting Hollywood actors, they will. So I think there’s both a realism to English chaos that I love, but there’s also a sort of power to the people element of it.

Patrick Cox: Right, I mean the language police in English do exist and they’re like you and me and everybody uses the language.

David Wolman: Exactly. It’s crowdsourcing and the wiki and all of it. And you can see it now flourishing with Wiktionary the Urban Dictionary online. And, you know, people who really believe strictly that the spelling that they learned as kids in the 1950s is correct. You know, not only are they wrong from a scientific perspective, but now they’re sort of really getting hammered because with text messaging, everyone is being so inventive.

Patrick Cox: But even with a language that — let’s take Spanish, because that is the language that just like English, has got a ton of borrowed words borrowed from other languages. But the Spanish tend to spell those words according to their own spelling rules. So you have a word like fútbol, loaned from the English football, but it’s fútbol, which makes perfect sense in Spanish. And that sometimes happens in English. But often in English, you keep the original spelling of the foreign word like something like schadenfreude spelled exactly the same way in English as it is in the original German. So English again, is kind of all over the map. And I wonder why a language like Spanish, Hispanifies the spelling of its loanwords, whereas English chooses whether or not?

David Wolman: Well, I think one of the answers is that as the British Empire was expanding and pulling in vocabulary from all over the world, there was no single gatekeeper and there was no one checking a new word’s papers as it entered the lexicon. And so you have people, you know, writing curry or guitar just as it comes. And of course, English is you know, the pronunciation is so different, not just in England, within England, but throughout the English speaking world, that you’ve it’s already a losing battle to try and block the word into a phonetic construction — because phonetic to you, Patrick, is obviously so different than phonetic to me. And I think with Spanish, although I don’t know enough about the history of Spanish, I think that as words were coming in, there was a way — and it probably was a single dictionary used by everyone at the time or something like it — that became sort of the de facto gatekeeper. And so fútbol comes in and let’s just do it that way. And from there, pretty much everyone is is using it that way. But English because it was sort of a mutt from the get-go and because there were already so many varying versions of English so early. That there’s no sort of single tree that you’re looking at, you’re looking at lots of little bushes around the around the garden.

Patrick Cox: But even as you say, it was a mutt from the early days. I wonder what it is that makes these attempts at spelling reform make some of them succeed in their small way and others absolutely fail?

David Wolman: It’s a great question, I think. Well, first of all, most of them fail because that’s just the way usage is. But what is striking is the influence of those rare cases in history when it did work. And one of them is really Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary. It was not the first dictionary of English, as a lot of people think, but it was so stunningly comprehensive and so huge and so artful that it really locked — for a lot of people — it locked spelling, in form, the K at the end of musick notwithstanding. And I think there you just see that tremendous success actually of a single individual having this sweeping impact on language and communication, which is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it. But other campaigns through the ages — you know, these are guys like Jonathan Swift who really wanted to see a language academy for English. You know, basically people like him, the elite of Oxford or London, determining for the rest of us how English should be written and how English should be spoken. And and luckily or perhaps inevitably, that effort to establish an English language academy, it was just always going to fall on its face. There were there were bigger concerns out there and more so English was never conducive to that kind of, you know, corset wearing.

Patrick Cox: It sounds as though you don’t think the spelling reformers have any greater chance of success now these days than they ever have.

David Wolman: Well, that’s not entirely true. What’s interesting about the spelling reform movement and if you imagine specifically those 10 or 12 brave individuals protesting outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee is that this was really a lost cause for a long time. There was no way they were going to get to rewrite the language. And yet now, because of this explosion in the digital age with language usage and inventiveness and text coding, what you’re seeing is this tremendous sort of populist effect on the language. We still revere the great dictionaries of the world and we should. But everyone else, everyone that gets to participate in dictionary making now, and that is a pretty wonderful thing. And so in a way, the spelling reformers are getting half of what they wanted. They’re seeing the H come out of rhubarb, perhaps, or some other simplified spellings. You know, maybe people will be as as radical and dangerous as to drop the I in friend someday, although I don’t think it’ll be anytime soon. But in any case. So they get to see this this changing in this simplification, what they’re not seeing and what is a little bit heartbreaking to them, I think, is that no one is tapping them on the shoulder saying, you know what, we would like you to be part of the United Nations panel on English orthography and its future direction, because I think in their heart of hearts, they they would want to be part of an English language academy of sorts. And that, of course, we know is is doomed, thankfully.

Patrick Cox: David Wolman. His book is called Righting the Mother Tongue, and a great read it is too.

Patrick Cox: That’s it for this time. If you enjoyed it — hey, you’re still listening! — please rate and review us wherever you listen. You can get in touch with us on Twitter or via email. The address is subtitlepod@gmail dot com.

Thanks this week to Alyson Reed at the Linguistic Society of America. Also to The World public radio show, international news and culture every day on your local public radio station. If you’re interested in knowing more about Indians, Indian Americans and Spelling Bees, I recommend a documentary called Spelling the Dream. It’s on Netflix and probably elsewhere. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back soon.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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