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Non-English spelling bees?
May 31, 2008 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Do non-English-speaking countries hold spelling bees?

Or is it unique to English because our spelling is so screwed that mastering it becomes a skill worthy of national competition?
posted by strangeguitars to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are many non-english spelling bees (french, spanish, etc.) held in the US and UK. I don't know if they are also held in countries where those languages are native.
posted by necessitas at 8:36 AM on May 31, 2008


Some have grammar contests, some have dictionary contests. The spelling bee seems to be somewhat uniquely English-speaking (particularly American).
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:37 AM on May 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't recall seeing one in Mexico while I was a kid. I don't discard their existence, but we clearly don't have national competitions nor are we used to schools hosting spelling bees.

Maybe because Spanish is less ambiguous than English, especially when writing it. Reading Spanish is way less unambiguous still.
posted by edmz at 8:41 AM on May 31, 2008


It's not that English spelling is 'so screwed', but rather that English has a deep orthography system (as opposed to a shallow orthography—meaning a high correspondence between written symbols and speech sounds). English also underwent a period of linguistic insecurity, when its speakers became incredibly conscious of their speech, grammar rules, spelling and pronunciation around the 16th century. It resulted in the first dictionaries and grammar books, all contributing to the standardization of the language. Many of the conventions and attitudes towards English then persist today (including prescriptivism). Also during that time, the printing press was introduced to England, which allowed for widespread standardization and literacy, but also unfortunately froze spelling in time...right before the biggest sound change in the history of the English language (the Great Vowel Shift). The resulted in what seems to be nonsensical spelling, but in the context of history, is quite explainable.

All that said, I could imagine that another language with a deep orthography system, where its speakers have linguistic interest and awareness in the nuances of the standardizations, would be interested in things like spelling bees.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:45 AM on May 31, 2008 [15 favorites]


Wikipedia backs up the theory that it's pretty much a U.S. phenomenon. We had school spelling tests in the U.K. but nothing of the cultural significance of the spelling bee. My theory FWIW is that the U.S. is an immigrant culture so there have historically been a larger amount of people being taught the nations primary language as a second language in the US compared to other less immigrant cultures. Maybe that would drive more of an obsession with spelling? (preys thut evryfink iz spelted write inn posding)
posted by merocet at 9:05 AM on May 31, 2008


In Quebec there is an annual 'dictee' on the radio where people try to transcribe a story read aloud. The trick is that it is constructed to make it very difficult to determine the correct gender, etc of different words so that you often have to go back and change what you've written after you hear something later on that reveals more info about the subjects in question. Oh, looking in the Slate article I see it's the #1 thing they mention.

My guess is that spelling bees came out of the American pioneer experience when just about anything passed for entertainment. I think "Pa" competed in a spelling bee in one of the Little House on the Prairie books. Ingalls-Wilder describes the Bee as being a fairly big deal in the small town's social life.
posted by GuyZero at 9:17 AM on May 31, 2008


I immediately thought of the dictee, which is a huge part of French schooling, but that's just every day work in school.

In most countries, excellent spelling is expected, even in places like Lithuania, where the written language is also quite difficult for native speakers. In north America we have to hype it. And I say this as a poor speller.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:56 AM on May 31, 2008


In Quebec there is an annual 'dictee' on the radio where people try to transcribe a story read aloud.
They have that in the Netherlands as well, except it's a TV broadcast, and inevitably someone from Belgium (from the Flemish part of course) makes the least amount of errors. But I don't think I've ever heard of a spelling contest in the form of a spelling bee like you've got over there.
posted by bjrn at 11:18 AM on May 31, 2008


It's a US thing, not an English-language thing.
posted by different at 1:22 PM on May 31, 2008


Wikipedia backs up the theory that it's pretty much a U.S. phenomenon. We had school spelling tests in the U.K. but nothing of the cultural significance of the spelling bee.

That was my experience too, there was no such thing as a spelling bee when I was at school in the U.K.
posted by ob at 1:59 PM on May 31, 2008


I think that Iamkimiam is right, but I think that deep orthography is equivelent to 'so screwed' in this case. Having to know that a word came from French to know the correct way to spell it is screwy.

A spelling bee in Spannish would be a waste of time since the way one goes from the spoken language to writen letters is simple and has few exceptions. I've been told it is similer in French.

What about in China? Would a Mandarin 'spelling bee' end up looking too much like rote memorization? Does it loose the thrill of possibly spelling an unencountered word?
posted by bdc34 at 2:05 PM on May 31, 2008


A spelling bee in Spannish would be a waste of time since the way one goes from the spoken language to writen letters is simple and has few exceptions.

This is not true. To take a couple of obvious cases, it is impossible to tell from the pronunciation whether to write b or v and whether to write c (before front vowels) or z or (outside of Castille) s, as a look at any bathroom wall in a Spanish-speaking country will make clear. It is, of course, true that the correspondence between speech and writing is much closer than in English.
posted by languagehat at 2:16 PM on May 31, 2008


Germany doesn't have spelling bees. Also, I've never heard of grammar-, spelling- or dictionary-contests in German-speaking countries.
(The German word for "spelling bee" would be well suited for a contest of that kind, though - try spelling Buchstabierwettbewerb!)
posted by The Toad at 2:37 PM on May 31, 2008


I don't remember ever having the chance to take part in a spelling bee while going through the german school system, which is kind of a shame because that was one of the few things I was actually good at, but we had public reading contests in grade school. so no, there were no spelling bees.
posted by krautland at 3:03 PM on May 31, 2008


A spelling bee in Spannish would be a waste of time since the way one goes from the spoken language to writen letters is simple and has few exceptions. I've been told it is similer in French.

You'd be wrong. I've had three different native French teachers, and all of them have had radically different mapping.
posted by rodgerd at 4:37 PM on May 31, 2008


Beppe Severignini writes about the Amercian phenomenon of spelling bees in his book Ciao America. It would be nearly impossible to have a spelling bee in German although currently in Germany Bastian Sick's column on grammar has become something of a craze, with even a computer game that tests people on their knowledge of German grammar, but still spelling, in German is pretty regular. Likewise certainly for Italian: it's just spelled too regularly to be an interesting thing to quiz people on. I imagine you could test Japanese people on their knowledge of Kanji: certainly books for young readers in Japanese often have kana spellings of the kanji in words as a hint to reading. Come to think of it, maybe you could have "reading bees" in Japanese...
posted by thomas144 at 5:57 PM on May 31, 2008


There's nothing remotely like the American spelling bee in the UK. Dictionary-devouring kids do still show up on Countdown, though -- which is based on a French format. (The British also like their cryptic crosswords.)

My guess is that spelling bees came out of the American pioneer experience when just about anything passed for entertainment.

You can sort of imagine that happening in places where a big dictionary and the Bible are the only reference materials easily at hand.
posted by holgate at 8:51 PM on May 31, 2008


It's not directly related but there's a lot of japanese tv games that are kanji challenges. For example, one them is guessing the correct kanji for a particular food item, the winners get to eat the food while the losers watch.
I'm not aware of national kanji competition though.
posted by SageLeVoid at 9:16 PM on May 31, 2008


bdc34: A spelling bee in Chinese (for pinyin) might be interesting, as people often don't pronounce things the way that pinyin tells them they should. But a Chinese character bee would be a great thing. It's easy to get Chinese people to squirm by asking them in pubic if they can write certain Characters. Victor Mair and David Moser have both written about that.

LH: Can you give us citations for those bathroom walls you're talking about? (hehe)

I don't think there are enough ambiguities in Spanish to warrant spelling bees.

I didn't know whether spelling bees were found in other English speaking countries. I wonder why it's so American.
posted by strangeguitars at 10:12 PM on May 31, 2008


I don't think there are enough ambiguities in Spanish to warrant spelling bees.

Again, not true. There are no Spanish spelling bees in Mexico, but there are written spelling spelling contests. Unrelated to the question, but there are also English spelling bees in bilingual schools, although they are not as big as in America.
posted by clearlydemon at 11:32 PM on May 31, 2008


Another echo here that spelling bees are US rather than anglophone.
posted by pompomtom at 1:14 AM on June 1, 2008


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