Art beat: The trials and tribulations of being a spelling bee judge

mdunham@adn.comMarch 16, 2013 

I made a hundred kids cry.

The tears -- some from me -- fell in the Discovery Theatre March 1. I was the head judge in the Alaska State Spelling Bee (Anchorage edition). My only job was to look at the word they tried to spell, glance at my fellow judges, then recite one of two sentences. "That is correct" or "That is not correct."

Ultimately, only one contestant would walk off the stage without hearing me utter the latter phrase.

In fact not all of the 139 registered spellers cried. Some accepted the verdict with a polite "Thank you" or even a little self-deprecating smile. But more than a few left with mist in their eyes.

There is no double-elimination in spelling. No consolation rounds. No second chances. No wonder the contestants looked at me like I was the guillotine operator.

I don't make the rules, just enforce them. But that doesn't keep me from questioning who decides some of the pronunciations on the list. I like to think there's a society of linguists who use some logical rubric to decide how words should sound. But do they seriously expect me to believe that the thistle-like herb cooked as a vegetable is pronounced "ardichoke" and that there is no alternate pronunciation? Is there really no difference between a "t" and a "d?" I hear it and am inclined to think the person who clearly says "artichoke" with a nice, crisp "t" is better educated, or at least a better English speaker, than a mumbler who uses the pronunciation given in the list we officials had to follow.

Even more disconcerting was the recurrent use of the upside down "e," called a "schwa." It was once reserved for the very short "uh" sound but now, with various adornments, can replace every other vowel in the alphabet: the "i" in "prevaricate," the "a" in "parochialism," the second "e" in "hegemonic," the second "o" in "phenology," the u in "ululation."

Call me a fuddy-duddy who took too many Latin classes, but I say prevaricate with an "ick" in the middle, find "parochi-all" perfectly legitimate, pronounce the e's in hegemonic homogeneously and keep a bit of the long "o" in "-logy." I wouldn't understand what someone meant if they said "uhluhlation," but would if they said "ooloolation," being an ululophile myself. (That's "ulu," from the Latin for "owl," not the device for cutting fish.)

The insistence on the schwa and rejection of alternate -- and arguably better, clearer -- pronunciations was not my only beef. "Ossuary" was given three different allowable pronunciations, the first, "oshoowary" being the least acceptable in my book. One contestant had to spell "flooey." When did that become a word? And who decided how it should be spelled?

Then we had "emanant." The 1997 Webster's College Dictionary at my desk does not include it, nor does the big 2001 American Heritage Dictionary at home. The contestant spelled "eminent." The decision was challenged and I would have been inclined to uphold it -- but it can be found in the unabridged Webster's and in the Oxford.

Three contestants remained in the final round. Veteran Corrie McCrorie of Mears Middle School was tripped up by the evil schwa in "labefaction," a word that has never appeared in the Daily News until now. It was a heartbreaker because, as an eighth-grader, this was her last competition.

Christopher Hubbard, a fifth-grader at Aurora Elementary, astonished everyone by making into the last cut. He was eliminated with "chresard," another word that has never before been printed in this paper -- or any other English language publication except dictionaries and a few academic journals as best as I can determine.

Eagle River Academy sixth-grader Bryce Tasso got "geanticline" -- which features the schwa in a fairly familiar context, the "i" in "anti." But to win he had to nail a second word, "neuropathy" (which has been used more than 100 times in the Daily News, usually in obituaries). It also held a schwa, but he knew "pathy" would be spelled with an "a," as in "pathetic."

"That is ... correct," I said.

Tasso leaped in the air and fell to the ground on his knees. He will represent Alaska at the National Spelling Bee in May where we hope he will be able to repeat that celebration.

In some ways the Alaska contestants were lucky. We never got to foreign words that should never have made it into an American spelling list: "Beetewk," "hoomalimali," "Weissnichtwo." Knowing tough words is important at the national level, but these may cross the line between tough and irrelevant.

But back to the schwa. Its use seems to be spreading in response to a national deterioration in diction. The pronouncer noted that vowels have become flatter in the last decade or so. I blame the lazy East Coast habit of dropping the final "r" from words. Americans east of the Alle- ghenies need to unite and enunciate every single vowel with respect for their immanent individuality -- for the sake of clarity, communication and civilization.

There are those who say id dudn madda. That there are no rules in English.

I say it matters mightily. Some indication of original vowel sounds, however subtle, should be integral to careful speech. Though pronunciation inevitably shifts over time, when it precipitously becomes arbitrary it erodes words' ability to convey ideas and realities. And when verbal communication loses precision, people will turn to means that more directly convey their desires -- such as fists, sharp objects and explosive devices. The streets will run with blood. Society will collapse. The leisurely reading of great newspaper columns over good coffee will no longer be a Sunday morning option.

The school spelling bee champions who competed on March 1 may be our last, best hope for avoiding such a labefaction.

Bee footnotes

  • After the contest, I found fifth-grader Christopher Hubbard and his parents. I told them I looked forward to seeing him again next year. They explained that they are a military family and are being transferred to North Carolina.

    I grieve for Alaska's loss. But I find a little pleasure in imagining the glee of the principal at some North Carolina school next fall when he realizes that an Alaska State Spelling Bee runner-up is the student body.

  • With regard to "emanant," I have composed a poem that may help allay further confusion. It is posted at adn.com/artsnob.

Mark your calendars

Two notable recitals will take place in the coming week. Anton Belov will present a program of Russian art songs with pianist Svetlana Velichko at 8 p.m. Saturday in Marston Theatre at Loussac Library.

Opera fans will remember Belov from Anchorage Opera productions including "Eugene Onegin" and "Il Trovatore." Velichko has been part of the Anchorage music scene for more than 20 years. Tickets $25 are available at centertix.net.

Next Sunday, March 24, Valerie Hartzell, a world-class guitarist who happens to be living in Anchorage for the moment, will perform at Anchorage Lutheran Church. That event is free, though donations will be accepted to help defray costs. We will have an article about her next week, but you can find out more at valeriehartzell.com.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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