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Controversy at the Spelling Bee

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee often provokes wonder – at the words that the kids are asked to spell, at the kids themselves for spelling them – but seems fairly non-controversial.

At this year’s event though, there were protesters. They weren’t protesting because they thought terribilita was a made up word. They weren’t protesting because they didn’t know what stromuhr (the winning word) means. Nope, they were protesting because they think English spelling should be made simpler.

From the New Yorker:

The argument that English spelling should be overhauled is nothing new, of course. Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain were both advocates for “spelling reform,” and George Bernard Shaw’s will stipulated that a competition should be held to develop a new, more efficient English writing system. The resulting phonetic alphabet was named the “Shavian alphabet,” after Shaw.

But while efforts to reshape and standardize English spelling have been around (almost) as long as English itself, some of the vehement (and dead-serious) arguments made by this year’s protesters are almost too delightfully bizarre to be true. Alan Mole, chair of the American Literacy Council and member of the London-based Spelling Society said “Our odd spelling retains words like cough, bough, through and though. This increases illiteracy and crime.” Sure, spelling can be tuf (ha!), but is it criminally difficult?

Yep, the protesters were arguing that spelling increases illiteracy and crime… interesting. Although my inability to spell ‘Mississippi’ correctly in a spelling contest at school, leading to a humiliating second-place finish, did make me feel like tearing up a dictionary – but that’s not a crime, right?

On a side note: an interesting stat on the Spelling Bee homepage reveals that out of 273 entrants, 102 speak languages other than English, and 21 spellers do not have English as their first language. It’s pretty amazing that these kids are so dedicated to obscure English words!