This, as many things are, is best introduced with a story.
For my sixth-grade area bee, where the top two spellers were sent to the regional bee, I learned every word on the School Spelling Bee Study List, as I knew that it contained the words that were going to be used for much of the bee. I knew every word on that list backward and forwards, and could drill through all 450 words with my dad in a matter of minutes. The bee did, in fact, use those words, but despite my mastery of the list, it was a word from that list that almost brought my demise. The word verdure was my word in a round where there were three spellers left, but instead of the correct \vərjər\ pronunciation, I was given the pronunciation \ver-¦zher\--as if the word was bergere, except it began with the letter V. I didn’t connect this at all with verdure because the pronunciation was so different from the one listed in Merriam-Webster that I had learned. The closest word I could think of that was on the study list was bourgeois. Needless to say, I was wrong. I would have been eliminated if I had not appealed on the grounds of mispronunciation, and although I was reinstated, it would have saved me (and several others in the same bee who found themselves in similar situations) a lot of trouble and stress.
Almost five years later, I’ve pronounced for a dozen or so local bees, and since I have experience both as a speller and as a pronouncer, I wanted to offer some of my advice to those who are going to be pronouncing a school or local bee for the first time this season. A competent pronouncer is the most important part of any bee--the bee simply cannot be well-run without one.
Let’s start with the pronouncer’s role, as outlined by the Scripps National Spelling Bee itself: The pronouncer strives to pronounce words according to the diacritical markings in Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists. This is your primary duty, and it is absolutely essential to the smooth running of the bee. However, it might be harder than it looks. It’s definitely not a good idea to go into the bee without having prepared yourself for pronouncing words correctly ahead of time. Here’s what you need to do:
Hey everyone! It's been a while since I've written here because I've been busy with a lot of things, but I'm back now and look forward to writing much more frequently in the near future!
Among spellers, German is usually something that’s loved or hated, without much in between. Personally, German is one of my favorite languages of origin. I struggled with it when I first started learning German, but I grew to love it over the years--the guttural sounds and the consonant clusters make it uniquely beautiful. One of my personal favorite German words has always been “schnurkeramik,” a word for a type of Neolithic pottery decorated with imprints of string. This word, which first drew me to it simply because it was fun to say, is made up of the German words schnur meaning “string” and keramik meaning “ceramics.” Literally, that translates to “string ceramics,” which, after all, is pretty much what it is. I was thinking about this word the other day, and I decided to dig around on Merriam-Webster Unabridged to find a couple more German pottery words that were just as intriguing.
One of the first words I came across was “bandkeramik,” which shares the word keramik with “schnurkeramik.” “Bandkeramik” is defined as “a European Neolithic pottery with banded decoration.” In addition to keramik, this word is also derived from the German word band (originally the Old High German bant), which simply means “band.” The literal translation is “band ceramics,” which, again, is exactly the definition. The letter D in this word is pronounced as a \t\ sound, which demonstrates a phenomenon that’s rather common in German-derived words.
Another German pottery word that I love is “urfirnis”--like the other words I’ve talked about, it just has a fun sound. This isn’t actually a type of pottery, but it still relates to pottery--it’s a black or red paint that was used on some prehistoric Greek pottery. Ur in German means “primitive” or “original,” referencing the fact that this paint was used in ancient times. Firnis means varnish, but it comes from the Middle High German vernis, which in turn came from the French vernis, also meaning “varnish.” The French word “vernissage,” which is defined as “a day before the opening of an exhibition of paintings reserved for the painters to varnish or put on finishing touches,” is also derived from the French vernis. I love that two words like “urfirnis” and “vernissage,” which don’t look similar to each other at all, can be closely related. It’s truly one of the best things about words--they’re all deeply connected, whether it’s visible on the surface or not.
There are, of course, many aspects of preparation for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. One must focus not only on memorization, but on roots, language patterns, vocabulary, and other topics. Mastering the English language is not an easy task. However, there’s an element of psychological preparation that cannot be ignored. When you’re studying, it’s much easier to spell words correctly than it is when you’re onstage with an audience, bright lights, and tons of pressure. As a result, it’s best to try to make up for this difference ahead of time by mentally preparing yourself for the national spelling bee outside of just learning about words, and the ideal time to do that is while someone is quizzing you on words that you’re learning for the bee. Here are some of the best ways to do that while you’re learning words.
Timed quizzing. Have the person who’s quizzing you set a timer for two minutes each time they give you a word. Remember that you can’t ask questions once you have 30 or fewer seconds left. This helps because it’s the same way time limits work onstage (at Scripps, that is), and getting used to having a limited amount of time will help you once it actually counts.
Stand up while someone quizzes you. This might sound unnecessary or over-the-top, but it helps to feel at least a little bit like you’re standing at a microphone and talking to the pronouncer. This is as close you can get to being onstage if you can’t actually be onstage.
Ask questions. All the questions. Every time. If you spell fast without asking questions while you’re practicing, you can’t expect yourself to switch into a different mindset when you get onstage. If you ask all your questions while you’re practicing, then it’ll be easier to remember to do so once you get onstage.
Find a bell. This will also help you make your practice as realistic as possible. Getting used to the presence and use of the bell will help you on the day of the bee because you won’t be stressed out by the bell; instead, you’ll be accustomed to it. Practicing with a bell helps you eliminate one factor that often causes more stress for spellers during bees.
Again, being prepared for the pressure of being onstage at the bee is just as important as being prepared for the words themselves. You can use these tips--or any other ideas you have--to do that, whether you're getting ready for a classroom bee or the national bee. Not only do these help you be ready for the bee--they also make studying more fun!
The North America Spelling Champion Challenge (NASCC) is an annual spelling camp and bee organized by the Spelling Bee of China (SPBCN). A number of Chinese and American spellers participate. It's more than just a competition--combined with the camp, the event facilitates cultural exchanges as well as learning about spelling and the English language. The inaugural NASCC was held in California just three years ago in 2015. Since then, it has grown by leaps and bounds every single year. In 2016, several Scripps finalists competed at the NASCC for the first time; this was also the year that I won the NASCC. In 2017, there were more spellers than ever, as well as more Scripps finalists competing than the previous year. Due to all of this growth, two NASCCs were held for the first time in 2018--one in Towson, Maryland, and one in Riverside, California the week immediately following the Towson NASCC. Both were excellent events and competitions, and I had the privilege of being present as a volunteer at the Riverside NASCC. It was a very busy week, but in the best way--it was incredibly inspiring and fun for at least a dozen reasons, and I believe that many of the spellers and others present at the event feel the same way.
The week began with an opening ceremony in which a number of spellers showcased their talents (besides, of course, spelling). There were also speeches from organizers about what to expect throughout the coming week. For the spellers, the next four days were filled with spelling classes alternating with other fun group activities. I had the opportunity to help out in a number of spelling classes, as well as to help demonstrate the rules of the new team competition to the teams who were going to participate. More on that soon. On Friday, a closing ceremony took place for the camp, with more performances from spellers, as well as speeches from last year’s champion, Shourav Dasari, and Kieran McKinney, one of the participants at this year’s Riverside NASCC who also competed in the 2017 and 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
After that, it was time for the competition to begin. The individual competition, which was the main focus of the weekend, was amazing to watch. The championship finals, featuring the final 11 spellers, narrowed the field down to 2 after just three rounds. The final two spellers were California’s Aisha Randhawa and Colorado’s Cameron Keith, both three-time Scripps National Spelling Bee participants who have also both made the finals there multiple times. They then dueled for 18 more rounds before Cameron eventually won on the word “listel.” Aisha came very close to winning at one point, but she misspelled “hysteriagenics,” her anticipated championship word. Both Cameron and Aisha were thoroughly impressive to watch and I congratulate them both sincerely.
Spelling bee history was also made this last weekend in Riverside. SPBCN has held team competitions before, but never outside of China. This weekend, that changed. A team competition consists of a series of spelling games played by teams of 5 students. Whichever team has more points at the end of the series of games wins the competition. There were two divisions for this team competition--primary and middle school. The primary school competition started with two American and one Chinese team, and the final was between the two American school teams--a team from Lake Mathews Elementary School in Riverside, which emerged victorious, and a team from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, also in Riverside. The middle school competition began with two Chinese teams and two American teams, and the final two teams were from the Suzhou Foreign Language School and Riverside STEM Academy (the former a school in China, the latter a school in the US). Riverside STEM Academy won the middle school division. I had the chance to judge the primary school team competition, and it was a great honor to be a part of such an important moment in bee history!
This last week was so wonderful in so many ways for everyone involved with the Riverside NASCC. It was a completely unmatched experience, and I imagine and hope that all of the spellers and other people who were involved feel the same way as I do.
A few days ago, Ben Nuckols, the Associated Press reporter who covers the Scripps National Spelling Bee every year, wrote an article about the toll Bee Week takes on spellers. I thought it was definitely a new perspective to see in the media, and interesting enough that I wanted to weigh in on how I feel about Bee Week and its effects on the spellers throughout the week.
The basic premise of the article is that Bee Week disrupts the typical routines of spellers--their sleeping, eating, and other habits are all significantly altered. This is absolutely true. Between stress and the slight time change, I always struggled to fall asleep at a reasonable hour during Bee Week. It resulted in a certain level of exhaustion throughout the week, although I was usually able to overcome my lack of energy while I was onstage (although late into the night finals after 10 pm, I started feeling more tired, which may have contributed to me missing a word). It is not true, however, that everyone can remain mostly unaffected by lack of sleep, and tiredness can absolutely be a factor in lowering the level of a speller’s onstage performance.
Another issue presented by Bee Week, in my experience at least, is that spellers often eat very little or nothing at all on competition days. The day is already busy, and most spellers have intense nerves to the point where they start to feel sick or lose their appetite. Some spellers don't eat before they compete for a number of reasons. This is definitely not good for onstage performance, or for the speller's health in general. It could exacerbate feelings of tiredness, or lead to lightheadedness, neither of which are ideal.
The stress from Bee Week can disrupt spellers' habits and normal schedules and routines. It can be extremely tiring, and it often takes time to rest and recover after Bee Week ends. However, the positives generally outweigh the negatives, and it's still one of the best weeks of the year. It’s even better if you remember to get enough sleep and eat adequately, even if you’re nervous. Good luck to everyone competing this week
The last year has flown by, and the 91st annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is only two weeks away! If it's your first time competing, you might not entirely know what to expect, so here are my top five pieces of advice for Bee Week (in no particular order):
The main change at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee is the introduction of an innovative new program called RSVBee, a "second chance" for competent spellers who either didn't win their regional bees or didn't have a sponsor for their regional bee. It will undeniably change the way the bee runs. Due to RSVBee, there are 519 spellers attending the Scripps National Spelling Bee--almost double the numbers of spellers in recent Scripps bees. The RSVBee Effect, as some have dubbed it, will likely show itself in a number of ways throughout the bee, mostly logistically but also competition-wise.
Firstly, the schedule of the bee itself has changed. Instead of the preliminaries test on Tuesday followed by rounds 2 and 3 on Wednesday, the test and round 2 will take place on Tuesday, leaving Wednesday just reserved for round 3. Spellers will be divided into five groups for the onstage preliminary rounds instead of two. Many past spellers reported that Rounds 2 and 3 felt long in previous years--they will likely feel even longer this year.
In addition, the Thursday night finals have a ticket policy for the first time in years. Each speller receives three tickets, and anyone else who wants to watch will have to stand in line in order to obtain a limited number of first come, first serve general admission tickets.
Perhaps the most interesting (although this is more of speculation than fact, unlike the previously mentioned effects) impact of RSVBee will be a higher cut line for the semifinals. Previously, the best prepared speller in a regional bee sometimes lost and, therefore, could not go to nationals. This phenomenon has largely been eliminated, as many of the most competent spellers in the nation who did not win their regionals are going to nationals anyway. This means that there will be a higher concentration of top tier spellers, which likely means that there will be a greater number of high scores on the Preliminaries Test. However, since only 50 spellers will be named semifinalists (just as before), the minimum score required to be a semifinalist will likely be higher than it has been in the past.
How do you think RSVBee will change the outcome of the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year? Will the cutoff score be higher than usual? What are your thoughts on the RSVBee program in general?
I had so much fun talking about Portuguese words last week that I decided to do it again. This brief post will have some more of my favorites.
Abacaxi \¦a-bə-kə-¦shē\. This one has the typical Portuguese "x" for the \sh\ sound, which is always fun. Other than that, the spelling is actually pretty straightforward. It's a word for a large pineapple grown in Brazil.
Barbeiro \bärˈbā(ˌ)rü, -rō\. This word for a type of insect exemplifies Portuguese patterns in two ways. Firstly, the \ā\ sound being spelled as "ei" is very common. There's also the tendency to spell \ü\ as "o" at the ends of words derived from Portuguese.
Cachaca \kəˈshäsə\. This is a type of Brazilian liquor. The last c has a cedilla, which enables it to be used for an \s\ sound before an a (it otherwise would be pronounced as \k\). It also has the typical "ch" used for the \sh\ sound in Portuguese.
What are your favorite Portuguese words?
Portuguese can seem like a tough language of origin from which to spell a word. How is one supposed to be able to figure out ridiculous tongue twisters like caixinha or cavaquinho or chocalho? It really can be difficult. However, it's only exceedingly difficult if you don't understand Portuguese spelling patterns; in fact, Portuguese has become one of my favorite languages to spell words from because of its unique yet more or less consistent patterns. Let's take a look at Portuguese via the three aforementioned tongue twisters (that all happen to be musical instruments).
Caixinha: a box rattle used in Brazilian dance orchestras. This is my favorite Portuguese word of all. There's just something about the sound of it and the way the letters go together that makes it great. The \k\ sound, of course, is spelled with a c--this is the norm in Portuguese words, as Portuguese is a Romance language. Romance languages are derived from Latin, and Latin rarely if ever uses the letter k, and as a result, the other Romance languages behave similarly. The rest of the word follows typical Portuguese patterns as well, including the x used to spell \sh\ and the characteristic h used to make the \y\ sound (this occurs mostly after the letters l and n in Portuguese words).
Cavaquinho: a Brazilian stringed musical instrument somewhat smaller than a ukulele. Besides the \y\ pattern again visible in this word, there are two notable things about cavaquinho. Firstly, there's the qu being used to spell \k\. This does deviate from my previous observation that c is most commonly used--qu is used before i and e, and c is used in all other situations, as a c before an i or an e would be pronounced \s\. The other thing worth noting is the fact that the word ends in an o--for words ending in the \ü\ sound that come from Portuguese, this is the typical ending.
Chocalho: a Brazilian rattle commonly consisting of a gourd with its dried seeds inside. This word is basically a repeat of previously-discussed patterns (for example, the \ü\ sound being spelled with an o or the \y\ sound being spelled with an h). The only other thing of note is that it exemplifies the other option besides x for spelling the \sh\ sound in Portuguese--ch. The use of x vs. ch is very context-dependent, and it's best to just learn some Portuguese words with that sound in order to get a feel for when to use which.
Portuguese, while difficult, gives us some tremendously fun words. It really only takes a little bit of work with the language's spelling patterns to start having a great time with Portuguese!