March 3, 2024

National Spelling Bee Challenges Students with Tough, Rare Words

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

The 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee was held from May 27 to May 30, according to the official website. Students from all 50 states gathered to spell some of English’s most difficult words. The complexities of the English language provide countless challenges for competitors.

Contestants of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee patiently waiting on stage.
Contestants of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee patiently waiting on stage. Photo by: Scripps National Spelling Bee (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

The final rounds of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2 on Thursday, and for the first time in history, judges ran out of words to challenge contestants, leaving eight co-champions. Ordinarily the champion is awarded a $50,000 cash prize, a $2,500 cash prize from Merriam-Webster, a trip for two to New York to appear on Live with Kelly and Ryan, and a trip for two to Los Angeles to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! as well. The achievement by these eight students is no small feat; the English language is wrought with difficult and esoteric spellings and definitions.

Lost in Translation

How did we get to the point in which the spelling “gh” sounds like the letter F in “rough,” but is silent in “night” and sounds like the letter G in “ghost,” anyway? “The Latin alphabet came to England with Christianity in 597 A.D.,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “The problem was that it had 23 letters for about 35 sounds, so some letters had to represent multiple sounds.”

Dr. Curzan used the letter C as an example. In Old English, the letter C represented the “ch” sound in the world “child,” and so that word was originally spelled “cild.” Finally, C was part of an Old English cluster that was pronounced “sh.” Because of this, “ship” used to be spelled “scip.”

In addition, some scribes used symbols from the runic alphabet to fill in missing letters for Old English sounds, like the Y-shaped rune called the thorn. In fact, the thorn explains one of the most commonly seen curiosities in Old English: the word “Ye,” as in the jocular expression “Ye olden days.” The English alphabet didn’t have a single character for the “th” sound, so scribes inserted the thorn instead. So when we see signs for “Ye Old Pub,” “Ye” simply means “The.” This has since caused some confusion, since “ye” also often means “you,” as in “Hear ye, hear ye!”

Found in Translation

Nearly 500 years later, the Norman French introduced further irregularities into English, some of which straightened out some riddles left by their Latin predecessors. “After 1066, Norman scribes replaced the unfamiliar runes that they encountered with letters that looked more familiar,” Dr. Curzan said. “They replaced the thorn with ‘th.’ They also introduced the spelling ‘sh’ for [the sound] ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ for [the sound] ‘ch’—this is when ‘child’ gets re-spelled with the initial ‘ch.’”

On the other hand, some French spellings made matters even more confusing. Returning to the letter C, Dr. Curzan explained that a French spelling convention is what causes the letter C to sound like “s” when used before the letters “i” or “e.” In her words, “This is how we get ‘city,’ where the C sounds like an ‘s,’ but ‘cat,’ which is an Old English word, where the ‘c’ sounds like ‘k.’”

Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants from all over the country masterfully commanded the English language to make it to academic fame and earn prizes for themselves and their schools. With just this precursory glance at linguistics and etymology, it’s easy to see just how hard these students must work.

Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English

Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. 

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