2007 (Kids) National Spelling Bee I
Bill Long 5/30/07
Today and tomorrow in Washington DC is the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The "finals" will be on television (ABC) tomorrow evening. The Bee kicks off with a written test of 25 words, followed by an oral round in which all 250 or so participants spell a word. After this round they eliminate about 75-100 spellers based on how many words they missed in the written and first oral round. The Beemeisters have already posted the 25-word written test list online; this and the next essay will give you those words and tell you about some of the more interesting ones of them. I hope to follow up with a few more essays as the Bee unfolds.
Basic Spelling/Word Principles
Because spelling bees have been roundly criticized as the latest example of useless "rote" memorization, and also as an implicit criticism of people who learn by methods other than standardized spelling, I want to make clear why I am "into" spelling. It is primarily because of the worlds that words open. Even in the list of 25 words I will exposit in this and the next few essays I was regularly taken in to places I have not previously visited. And, I also discovered that as I looked up some of the words in the dictionary, in order to get a more precise pronunication or to research the etymology, my eye inevitably fell on "neighbor words" which themselves clamored for attention. Words are reality-openers for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Here is the list of 25 words, proceeding across:
Before expositing some of them, I thought it might be helpful to comment on the list and some of the words in general. Like the 2006 Bee, the list ended with an exclamation point--a very difficult German word for people who don't know the basic construction of German. Last year it ended with scherenschnitte-- which is just cutting out (schnitte) of paper designs with scissors (scheren). This year we have the wonderful word Bewussteinslage, which again can be understood in general if you take it apart. By the way, it has nothing to do with "being" a "wuss," though you might think of yourself as one if you tried to spell it without knowing German. But Bewusstein is a classic German word for "consciousness" or "awareness." I am sure it was used hundreds of times by German philosophers in the 19th century who, the more they spoke about awareness the more they plunged their readers into states of torpid unconsciousness and confusion. When you combine two nouns in German you add an "s" in between, the German equivalent of the "y" in Spanish. A Lage is not a "lager" and so you can't drink it. It is a "laying" or a "state" or a "condition." German has loads of ways to express abstractions, and the word "lage" helps you out in this way, too. Thus a Bewussteinslage is a "state of consciousness" or "state of awareness," though I am sure this tells us almost nothing of the real story of the word.
Phenomenology and the Spelling Bee
Actually, as I did some more thinking and research on the issue, I realized that Bewussteinslage arose in the late 19th century in the murky area between experimental psychology and phenomenology in philosophy. Names like Husserl and Wundt come to mind like a bad dream when these fields are mentioned. I recall studying phenomenology in my doctoral program in Religious Studies at Brown in the late 1970s, and I felt at the time that it was nothing more than a way to try to breathe new life into a turbid and turgid system of doctrinal German philosophy in the late-19th century. So, the phenomenalist would practice "epoche" (suspending belief) or "putting on the brackets." One had go "zur Sache" or "to the things themselves." Like most movements in life it can be summarized in one sentence with well-chosen words, but most of those who study it are weighed down like people in Dante's Inferno, going round and round with terrific burdens on their shoulders trying to understand unfathomable words.
Well, Bewussteinslage appeared in one scholarly article I could readily find, and I mean to give you the context so that you will see what is "up" with the word. It appears in an article on Wilhelm Wundt and the conceptual foundations of psychology. It says that in the 1880s James and Lange held that an emotion was a set of sensations arising out of bodily changes, while Wundt and others argued that something else was also present in consciousness to produce emotions. If you really got "into" psychology you would soon discover the "James-Lange theory" on human emotions. Though it can get mushy pretty quickly, you can explain it in the following easy sentence:
"I see a bear; my muscles tense; my heart races; I feel afraid."
Wundt, though, wanted to go further than that, though I don't know precisely what he added to the mix. Then the article goes on to say:
"in the 1890s controversy developed about reaction times and, worst of all, beginning in 1901 the Wurzburgers (a school of psychology) claimed to find in their experimental introspections imageless thoughts, a 'Bewussteinslage' without sensory content, 'determining tendencies' which work unconsciously."
So, this is where Bewussteinslage had its birth. Kunta Kinte, I have found you! I have not the slightest idea of how to express the concept in a sentence or how to point to exactly what is meant by the term. By its nature it seems to be as evanescent as a breeze. But at least I have tried! It is an "imageless thought." Think about that for a while.
I see I have reached the end of the essay without even having made much progress. I vow to do better in the next essay.