Wednesday, June 5, 2013

No Wasps in the Bees?

“Queens boy, 13, wins Scripps Spelling Bee with ‘knaidel’ ” reads a headline in the New York Times of May 30, 2013. But a headline on June 1 announces, “Some say the spelling of a winning word just wasn’t kosher.”

The contest, open to kids up to the age of 15, seems like a good idea on paper. Theoretically at least, it introduces youngsters to a respect for words and their spelling, and so, presumably, to a love of language with a full sense of its importance, and to the satisfaction of spelling correctly. But upon closer consideration, I find this nationally televised event rather more problematic. Could it possibly do more harm than good?

As I peruse the two Times articles and a longer one from the Associated Press of May 31, I find my disapproval mounting. Let us look, first, at some of the words that were to be spelled, or, at any rate, those cited in the various articles.

Take, to begin with, “knaidel” itself. It is a Yiddish word, perfectly unnecessary in English, where “matzo ball” does very nicely, thank you. Now if that dumpling is to be spelled in the form given in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, we should realize that Webster’s Third, as it is usually called, has elicited powerful disapproval from such pundits as Dwight Macdonald among a good many others.

Yiddish, moreover, is a tricky language. Derived mostly from German--some would say a corruption of it—it is a labile lingo, varying somewhat from country to country. There is thus, strictly speaking, no single Yiddish, but rather a number of clearly related yet nevertheless different Yiddishes. Consider merely “knaidel,”  the Yiddish version of “Knodel,” the German for dumpling. Because the “o” with an umlaut was foreign to Jewish speakers emigrating to Germany from Slavic countries, the vowel morphed into a diphthong, more congenial to Jews from Poland and Russia.

How is the word to be transliterated into English? YIVO, the acronym for the Yiddish Scientific Institute for Jewish Research, postulates “kneydl” as the correct Anglicized spelling. But the YIVO people are not considered legislators by many Jews who, for example, do not accept “chutzpah” as spelled “khutspe” by YIVO, which avoids the “ch” as apt to be mispronounced “sh” as in sugar. Be that as it may, the dumpling appears as “kneidel” on the menu of the venerable Second Avenue Deli, whose owner remarks that “there is no real spelling of the word, so who determines how a word is spelled?”

Leo Rosten’s highly regarded “The New Joys of Yiddish” does indeed spell it as “kneydl,” although the famous author Sholem Aleichem preferred “knaydl.”  But Gloria Birnbaum, a teacher of Yiddish, spells it “knadel.” “I wouldn’t have spelled it with an I,” she declares. A respectable old lady, May Schechter, 90, of Romanian origin, says she doesn’t consider variety wrong: “You can spell it any way you want,” she observes, so long as it is understood. There is similar disagreement about other words, e.g., Hanukah and YIGO’s Khanike, with the popular former version prevalent.

My own feeling on the mater is that Yiddish words should not pop up on American spelling bees. They can manifestly be spelled in too many ways, and who is to say that the not universally respected Webster’s Third should be the unquestioned authority?

I haven’t even mentioned “knadle” or “knaidle.” “Knaidel” is attacked even by experts who worry that it might lead people into pronouncing the word as “knydel,” which they say would be definitely beyond the pale (not pail). Couldn’t we just stick to “matzo ball” which nobody seems to spell as “matzoh ball” though that would, apparently, be permissible. And why pick, as the contest repeatedly does, words that are unlikely to figure in most contestants’ or any other people’s lives?

Other words in the Spelling Bee cited in the three articles are cyanophycean, tokonoma, dehnstufe, hallali, and zenaida. When, I ask, would one need to know how those vocables are spelled? But now let us look at the actual contestants whose names appear in the abovementioned articles: Pranav Sivakumar, Nupur Lala, Sriram Hathvar, Vismaya Kharkar, the sisters  Vanya and Kavya Shivashankar and, above all, the current winner, Arvind V. Mahankali,13, from Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in Bayside, Queens. Only one name mentioned, Amber Born, does not sound Indian.

It is nice that Arvind is the first New York champion since 1997. But as the son of immigrants from Hyderabad in southern India, he continues the tradition of  winners and runner-ups  of Indian descent. This was his fourth trip to Washington for the contest, eventually winning a competition in which he came in third in 2011 and 2012.

Arvind has never eaten a matzo ball, is not Jewish, and speaks also Telugu, a southern Indi tongue, Spanish and some Hindi. Not only are Indians by upbringing more disciplined and motivated than cosseted monolingual Caucasian-American  kids (and don’t let me get started about American education), but also, speaking at least both English and one Indian tongue, Indian-American youths have the polyglots’ greater interest in, and feel for, languages. Still one wonders: why such knowledge? Arvind is headed for a career in physics, like his idol Albert Einstein; all these words hardly loom important in his future. What he did is spend numerous hours every day perusing the dictionary, and even more hours (6 to 8) on weekends. Isn’t that avoidance of healthier pursuits, and turning a kid into a swotting nerd?

Contestants, to be sure, are presented a word in some kind of context—a single sentence not necessarily very helpful with its meaning and no help at all with its spelling.

In particular, the question arises: How does a winner do it? All we read is that, influenced by a father who loudly chanted Telugu poems backwards and forwards, Arvind started in fourth grade memorizing words that his dad collected from the dictionary. When he began to win spelling bees, Arvind himself proceeded to browse in dictionaries for uncommon words. He also researched their derivations and languages of origin “as a way of better implanting the correct spelling in his mind.” And because he previously stumbled over Germanic words, concentrated on them—thus also on Yiddish words of German origin, llke knaidel.

All very well, but given the thousands upon thousands of words in the dictionaries, the vast majority of them uncommon, how many must one implant to sprout (or spout) correct answers to the particular ones chosen for spelling? The chance of having hit on the right ones may well compare to that of winning the grand prize in the lottery. And even if the words thrown at a kid in the competition might be recalled eventually, that is very different from summoning them up under stress in the few allocated seconds. So winning might be a matter of superior cool and memory rather than greater knowledge.

This year a novelty was introduced, announced a mere seven weeks before the contest. In small separate rooms, contestants were given some kind of multiple-choice vocabulary test, before the televised spelling bee. No detail about this is provided in the articles I’ve read, but it sounds rather like television’s “So You Want to Be a Millionaire,” where luck and good guessing matter more than learning.

Now back to those pesky words in the contest. Take “hallali,” a huntsman’s bugle call known to French speakers, but not to be found even in the huge Random House Complete Unabridged Dictionary, although it evidently sneaked into Webster’s Third. Well, how esoteric can you get? And I’m not even talking about cyanophycean.

So I pronounce the Scripps Spelling Bee not much different from any other television game show, no more educational than, say, “Jeopardy”—in fact rather less so. But it did win Arvin $30, 000 and a $2,500 savings bond, which I do not begrudge him. And one of his teachers has even promised to bring him a matzo ball to class, which should increase his gustatory experience. Perhaps his mother will even learn to alternate matzo ball soup with mulligatawny.


  1. In my third grade spelling bee (approximately age 8), I was in the running to win, with only four of us left, and the final word came up. I was the penultimate in line; the two kids before me misspelled Santa Claus ("claws" of course was one of them), and I thought I had no way to lose.

    I forgot to capitalize the S and C. The bozo to my left won the prize.

  2. Speaking of Yiddish, back in the 90s while in the thick of writing a novel that would metamorphose into a euphuistically unmanageable Trilogy comprising over 1,000 pages, I had occasion to spend a few hours rummaging "like a jackdaw" (a tip of the hat to Donald Barthelme's delightful phrase) through Yiddish-English dictionaries to amass enough phrases that caught my eye for me to flesh out a particular character.

    After a few hours, it became clear to me that the English orthography of Yiddish is thoroughly up for grabs; so I just took the spellings more pleasing to my eye (and occasionally took the liberty of adjusting them even without a lexical authority).