Spelling Bees and the Saying of Words

I read an article this morning about protesters at a spelling bee. They were there to voice their opinion that English words should be spelled phonetically to make the language more accessible and also to save resources. In the article, words such as “heifer” and “enough” were used as examples of words having more letters than are necessary. Heifer could be spelled “hefer” and enough could be spelled “enuf.” A teenage spectator at the bee commented that if words were streamlined and spelled phonetically, spelling bees might no longer be challenging.

That made me wonder if spelling bees are common anywhere else in the world besides English speaking countries. After being exposed to German and Spanish, I know that words in those languages are relatively easy to spell because the spelling is based on consistently applied rules of word structure and sound. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any words in those languages that deviated from the rules. Knowing the rules of either language is all one needs to become an expert speller. An official spelling bee word pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, states that “there couldn’t be a spelling bee in German, or Japanese, or French, or any other language.”

The outlandish use of unneeded letters is not the only aspect of English words that makes spelling them challenging. Our habit of butchering the pronunciation of words also contributes to the confusion. Take the word “moot,” for example. That word is spelled like “boot,” but with an m  instead of a b. You would think that pronouncing that word would be an easy matter. But don’t forget that we also have the word “mute.” We all know how to pronounce mute but at least half of us don’t know how to pronounce moot. I have given up on correcting people when they mispronounce moot by saying it exactly like they say mute instead of like they say boot.

Another example of butchered pronunciation that leads to incorrect spelling is the word “realtor.” That word has two syllables: REAL-TOR. Not three syllables, as in REAL-A-TOR. Don’t even try correcting anyone’s pronunciation of that word. It’s a losing battle, especially when you hear it mispronounced on TV by news anchors and other people who should know better. My guess is that at least 8 out of 10 Americans mispronounce that word. But hearing it mispronounced still makes me go nuclear.

Speaking of “nuclear,” here we have another word famously butchered in pronunciation. George W. Bush is perhaps the most illustrious of the mispronouncers of “nuclear.” Since he was also famously the “decider,” I guess he assumed that he could decide how words should be pronounced. But he’s not the only one who refuses to say nuclear the way it should be said. In the case of that word, the mispronouncers don’t add a syllable, they just rearrange them. Nuclear should be pronounced NU-CLE-AR. George W, like many others in this country, insist on saying it NU-CYU-LAR. I have no idea how or why this came to be. It seems to me that NU-CYU-LAR is not as easy to say as NU-CLE-AR. Maybe I’m wrong about this. Perhaps it has something to do with the physical construction of one’s mouth and tongue that makes one form of pronunciation of that word more appealing than another. If that’s the case, it’s possible that other words might be pronounced one way or another for the same reason. It might be that some people have certain pronunciation strengths and so exercise them.

Since I used the word “strength,” I’ll mention its pronunciation. When I say that word, I include the g. Or perhaps I make the g sound more like a k. Either way, I make sure that the four consecutive consonants are somehow accounted for. I’ve heard other people drop the g. When they say the word, it sounds like “strenth.” For some reason this bothers me. Each time I hear strength pronounced strenth, I see the word in my mind and I see it without the g. If I were a child and heard adults pronouncing the word that way and had never seen it in print, I would probably guess that it was spelled strenth.

It’s interesting that many of the English words that are mispronounced by native speakers are short words with just a few syllables. Longer words don’t seem to be as difficult except for non-native speakers. People learning English must concentrate on the pronunciation words with no obvious rule for syllable enunciation. A video demonstrating this can be found here. Other languages like German and Spanish have standard pronunciation rules that help non-native speakers figure out how to say the words.

All this provides a pretty obvious reason for the ubiquity of spelling contests in the English-speaking world. A language with few spelling rules and few pronunciation rules means that no one can figure out how to spell a word by hearing it or say a word by reading it. Each word offers a unique challenge. With 476,000 words in the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s official source of words (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged) there is almost no limit to the opportunities for the misspelling of words.

I agree that many English words could be spelled more efficiently and that doing so would save ink and paper. But I actually like knowing that I can spell and pronounce slough, rough, dough, through, cough, bough, tough, though, and crough.

I lied about that last word. It’s a surname, and I have no idea how it’s pronounced.

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