"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Spelling Bees–The Importance Of Words And Language

I have always thought that I was a good speller until I ran into all the automatic spell-checks on Word and my blogging software.  OK, the mistakes are predictable given the English language.  I either put in an ‘n’ too many or one too few, but still I would never win any spelling contests.  I am good at the hard words, the ones in spelling bees because as an amateur linguist, I am always trying to guess the origins of words.  The origins of English words are rarely a mystery, since they are either related to German or Danish (early history), to Latin (after Roman occupation), and French (after 1066).

When a word does not seem to be related to any of these, then it has been imported through trade, travel, or exploration; and if one knows enough of the history of the British Empire, origins can be surmised.  One of the most fascinating exercises is to look for word origins beyond original influences.  Although English has been influenced by German and French, for example, they in turn have been influenced by earlier Indo-Aryan tongues.  It is always fascinating to see how the same Sanskrit-based words pop up in Russian, Polish, German, and English.

George Bernard Shaw was famous for his desire to reform the English language and to spell it the way it sounds.  Foreigners are always flummoxed by the irregularities and peculiarities of English spelling and pronunciation, and they have to learn that ‘enough’, ‘cough’, ‘sough’, and ‘dough’ are all pronounced differently.  American high school students who had to take a foreign language usually opted for Spanish because by and large it is spelled just like it sounds.

Although the so-called ‘Shavian Alphabet’ never caught on, there have always been educational reformers who want to simplify English spelling so that it is more accessible to slow learners and foreigners alike; but traditionalists have always carried the day by saying that spelling is a link to our cultural past.  Knowing where a word came from, they argue, allows you to have a quick look into history – France won the Battle of Hastings and forever after French words have been a part of the English language. 

English has imported many words from other languages, and spelling gives a clue to their origin.  ‘Chipmunk’ is an Ojibwa word meaning ‘red squirrel’; ‘hominy’ a Powhatan word meaning ‘ground or beaten’; ‘opossum’ is a proto-Algonquin word meaning ‘white dog’

‘Cotton, damask, gauze, muslin’ all come from Arabic.  ‘Cheetah’ is a Sanskrit-based word meaning an animal that is ‘uniquely marked’.  ‘Jackal’, also from Sanskrit means ‘a howler’.  ‘Crocus’ originally meant a flower ‘of saffron color’.

Changing the spelling of these words to make them conform to a uniform code would deprive them of their historical links.  Reformers say, “So what?”. The purpose of language is communication, not history lessons.

Mao Tse-Tung was a reformer who succeeded in simplifying the Mandarin language.  In Chinese pictograms made up of up to 20 brushstrokes – convey a whole meaning and are derived out of an actual physical representation or cultural concept.  For example, the pictogram for ‘elephant’ was derived as follows:

Others are formed in other ways:

Pictophonetic characters are composed of two parts: a pictograph, which suggests the general meaning of the character, and a phonetic part, which is derived from a character pronounced in the same way as the word the new character represents. Examples are (river), (lake), (stream). All these characters have on the left a radical of three dots, which is a simplified pictograph for a water drop, indicating that the character has a semantic connection with water; the right-hand side in each case is a phonetic indicator. There are many such words, for example: ͭ(copper), (roast), (collar).

Here is an example of how the character for the word ‘horse’ was simplified:

Simplified version


Original version

Both versions are immediately recognizable, but the simplified version is easier to write. One can see that the nature of the horse – the gestalt image of ‘horse’ - has been significantly changed and the mental image formed is different.  Some more complex words like ‘bravery’ and ‘honesty’ have not been changed since alteration would change the basic, core value.

There has always been a debate between those who want to preserve classical, ancient, or traditional language and those who feel that language is nothing but a means of communication, and in the interest of democratic participation, it should be as easily understood and accessible as possible.  In India, for example, ‘shudh’ or high Hindi – the purist modern version of Sanskrit – had always been the language of the priestly caste, and these Brahmins insisted upon its usage far beyond the temple and into the public domain.  Although villagers spoke their own ‘deshi’ version of the language, when the tuned into All India Radio, they heard unintelligible words and phrases.

The commonly-used Hindi word for ‘mosquito’ is ‘macchar’; but the high-Hindi term is ‘gunjanhaari manav rakt pipasu jeev’.  The expressed purpose of All India Radio was to assure that the newly independent Indian population spoke correct Hindi, but the real reason many suspect was to restate the primacy of the ruling, priestly, and dominant castes of the country.

Cameroon is a country with two distinct regions, English-speaking and French-speaking.  This is only an official distinction, because there are no cultural or political reasons which prohibit or impede the free flow of commerce and social interaction among the populace.  People either speak their native tribal language or pidgin, a lingua franca made up of both English, French, and tribal dialects.  A number of years ago, I was asked by the government to help develop a national family planning media campaign.  After quickly assessing the language situation, I advised that the campaign be in Pidgin, for almost 100 percent of Cameroonians understood and spoke it.  “Not on your life”, said the authorities.  “We must use English and French”, the only proper, legitimate, and official languages of the country.  It didn’t matter at all that only a tiny fraction of the population spoke either European language, it was a matter of pride and principle.

In other words, pidgin, an unrecognized, bastardized language which conveyed the most elaborate French concepts in street slang, was already a threat to French and English, and any national campaign in it would send the wrong signals.  I capitulated of course, and we broadcast in European languages and to no one’s surprised, the campaign had limited impact.

It must be noted, however, that the European country with the most xenophobic view of language – France – has recently agreed to some spelling changes in the spirit of democratic reform. In 1990 the French government agreed to some modifications in the language.  They did not call this effort ‘modernization’, but ‘correction’ and did a few things with accents, hyphens, agreement of participles, and a few standardizations to words like ‘pagaille’  - a mess – which had three or four current spellings.  To their credit, the French did not to radical surgery, cutting off words from their historical roots; but they did understand that at some point, minor alterations are necessary.

All of which brings me to the famous Scripps Spelling Bee, a contest which gives no ground and which comes up with arcane words, many of them borrowed from other languages.  The last and winning word was ‘knaidel’, a German-derived Yiddish word meaning “a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling water or steaming as with soup.”  Obviously the young contestants are such good spellers that only the most difficult and unusual words will do.  The winners are almost always South Asian, not surprising because of traditional Asian discipline and focus on learning and the currency of English as a second if not first language.

The Spelling Bee is a ringing endorsement of traditional spelling.  Contestants when faced with a difficult word will always ask for its definition and origin, seeking the cultural and historical clues which will give them insights into its spelling and in their own way are repeating the same investigatory process as linguists.

So congratulations to Arvind Mahankali for winning the Bee and to his parents for giving him the right values of discipline and learning; and an appreciation for and love of language.

"At home, my dad used to chant Telegu poems from forward to backward and backward to forward, that kind of thing," said Arvind's father, Srinivas. "So language affinity, we value language a lot. And I love language, I love English."(Huffington Post).




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