In May 2019, I was waiting in line for the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee when a reporter approached me. He wanted to talk with me about the students I had coached and about the spelling bee in general. At one point in our conversation, he wondered aloud why some rounds had shorter words mixed in with longer ones. It seemed unfair to him because he assumed the longer ones would be harder. Of course, he was right that the word list was not perfectly even in terms of difficulty, but word length had nothing to do with it.
If you’ve watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals, I’m sure you’ve noticed the prevalence of long German words (among others) in the late finals--sprachgefühl and scherenschnitte and what have you. Obviously, it’d be wrong to label these words as downright easy, but at the same time, harder words exist. It’s long been a theory in the spelling bee community that the word panel chooses words more for how hard they’ll look on television as opposed to how difficult they’ll actually be for spellers. While these two categories do have some overlap, they’re not always the same thing. Long German words, for example, can sometimes be difficult, but for many spellers, they tend to be on the easier side in terms of words that will be used in the national finals. Why is that?
Language patterns. Most spellers have dedicated a significant portion of their study time to gaining a deep understanding of how specific languages of origin work, how certain sounds will be spelled in words from those languages, etc. Spellers know that German words are especially common at the national bee, so knowledge of German is highly prioritized. Thus, many spellers will know words like gesellschaft and auslaut (both winning words in the past three years!) off the tops of their heads.
So if the German words are often on the easier side for spellers, what are some examples of words that are actually hard?
Polish cities, anyone? (Actually, a lot of spellers are familiar with Polish cities because they’re a running joke in the spelling community as being the types of words Scripps should use in place of the German words. But if that wasn’t the case, then yes, they’d be really difficult.)
Let’s take a look at marram, the word that tripped up the otherwise infallible 2017 Scripps runner-up Rohan Rajeev. It’s a noun meaning a type of grass, and it’s of Scandinavian origin. Its sole pronunciation is \’marəm\. That’s all the information you get on that word. Unlike sprachgefühl, which actually follows some pretty consistent German patterns throughout the word, there’s not a lot of information to inform your spelling of marram if you don’t have it memorized. Scandinavian is a pretty generic answer to the language of origin question--it’s not even a language; rather, it refers to several languages spoken in a region of Northern Europe. You can’t follow patterns with marram anywhere near as easily as you can with sprachgefühl. It becomes clear pretty quickly that sometimes, the short words that aren’t from German can be a lot more difficult than the long German words, even though it might seem counterintuitive.
Don’t even get me started on trademarks or imitative words or, God forbid, words of unknown origin.