Monday, June 1, 2015

To Bee or Not To Bee

Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were declared co-winners of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. The final ten contestants also included Dev Jaiswal, Siddharth Krishnakumar, Tejas Muthusamy, Siyona Mishra, and Snehaa Ganesh Kumar.

The last eight winners of the Bee were Sameer Mishra, Kavya Shivashankar, Anamika Veeranmani, Sukanya Roy, Snigdha Nandipati, Arvind Mahankali, Sriram J. Hathwar, and Ansun Sujoe.

The dominance of spellers of South Asian ancestry, primarily Indian, has been a phenomenon of the Bee since about 2000. A recent article by the LearnThat Foundation suggests these reasons for the superior performance by students of Indian ethnicity:

1. Indian culture values education and regards memorization as a building-block towards higher knowledge.

2. South Asians maintain closely knit family and community groups, which value academic achievement.

3. There are some preliminary spelling contests specifically for Indian-Americans that encourage participation in the national bee.

Another possible explanation is that anyone who learns a second language through study will have a better command of spelling and grammar than native speakers.

The winning words this year were Scherenschnitte and nunatak. Other words that contestants negotiated were rollmops, arcology, apivorous, gibus, naranjilla, cimex, rechauffe, colcha, railleur, and syrette. 

When I was the runner-up in the 1950 National Spelling Bee, I lost on the word haruspex. The co-winners that year were Diana Reynard of Cleveland, Ohio, and Colquitt Dean of Atlanta.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a pretty fair speller himself. He can even spell the names of some of this year’s contestants. 

            Participial Bugs I Have Known
            A praying mantis of my ken, 
            Whose name was Myrtle Morrison, 
            Always said, “Amen, amen” 
            At the end of every orison. 

            A kissing bug has lots of fun 
            And thinks it’s really neato 
            To buzz the gals, then kiss and run, 
            Ahead of the mosquito. 

            A jumping bean contains a moth 
            That someone did deposit. 
            The moth would much prefer some cloth 
            Inside a darkened closet.

            A tiny spelling bee won’t lose 
            A word game to his betters, 
            Because he knows his P’s and Q’s, 
            And all the other letters. 

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