Saturday, May 28, 2016

The National Spelling Bee, GMBH

Friday's Washington Post carries an account of the National Spelling Bee. When I last participated in a spelling bee, I was a tenth of my present age, and the words were in English. The words mentioned in the Post's story included
  • gesellschaft, which is German, or would be if one capitalized it.
  • Feldenkrais, which is originally a surname, presumably Yiddish.
  • trombatore, which is Italian.
I think it is all to the good that American students study the vocabularies of foreign languages. I worry, though, that they may do so in the belief that they are studying the vocabulary of English. I know, of course, how well English naturalizes newcomers, and will happily snack on a knish or
drink a bock with any gourmand out there,. Yet apart from a college friend who had read Max Weber, I don't think that I have ever heard "gesellschaft" uttered in English conversation.

The amusement of a spelling bee seems to me best suited to the English language among those I know anything of--Spanish orthography has many fewer pitfalls for the speller, I understand. It may be, or may once have been peculiarly American. The 1871 novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster, set in the  first half of the 19th Century in rural Indiana, includes a spelling bee. There the winning word was "theodolite". Judging from the description of the rough people of the area, whose boys "driv off the last two [schoolmasters], and licked the one afore them like blazes", I suspect that the attempt to introduce "gesellschaft" or any word not in the then current Webster's Dictionary would have led to a riot.

No comments:

Post a Comment