National Spelling Bee (Live)
Bill Long 5/31/07
Reflecting on Round 5
I will be the first to admit that I missed several of the words in round 5--five of them as a matter of fact. One of the difficulties in spelling "live" is that you don't always "see" the word in your mind when it is given you, even if you really do know the word. So many words sound like other words that you often can go down an incorrect mental pathway instead of the right one. This and the next essay will review some of the words from this round as well as some ways that watching the spellers helps me learn about life and words. First some comments about life.
Precision and Chance and Silly Mistakes
As I am writing this note the judges are considering an appeal of the person who was supposed to have won the competition: 13 year-old Samir Patel of Texas. Patel, who placed second and third in previous competitions, went out in this round, finishing in the top three dozen spellers but certainly much lower than he wanted to. He seemed stunned that he had missed the word when interviewed (the word was "clevis"). Then, several minutes later he lodged a protest--that the word wasn't properly pronounced. I think it was an "after the fact" appeal generated by disappointment, and that he shouldn't be reinstated. Nevertheless, it illustrates two of the chief lessons of participating in spelling bees: the chanciness of it all and the reality of silly mistakes. It is impossible to know all the words in the dictionary--at least that is what everyone tells me--and so sometimes you just have to "guess." Then, there is the problem I mentioned above, that sometimes a word doens't just "come" to you.
A second point is obvious, but should be stressed. Spelling is a precise discipline. Yet, it isn't as precise as the impression given by the Bee. The only way the Bee can "work" is if there is one correct spelling of a word. I would venture to guess, however, that in the Unabridged dictionary (the Webster's 3rd International), there are perhaps 30,000 words (out of about 500,000) that have more than one spelling. In addition, if you study the history of words through examples provided in the OED, you see that even very "common" words have had more than one spelling in their history. Thus, spelling is a convention, and the current "correct" spelling is only the way that some people, especially dictionary-makers, want the word to be spelled. Sometimes there are even differences in spelling of the same word between American dictionaries.
When all this is said, however, there are hundreds of thousands of words for which there is no major disagreement about spelling. These are the words that the competition draws upon. Though some argue that forcing children to spend hours a day memorizing the spelling of words is akin to child abuse, I would counter that such discipline inculcates on people the habit of precision in thinking and speaking. In fact, I think the focus on spelling in our culture now will eventuate in 20 years in a renewed interest in precision in our scholarly work and teaching. As I have showed in my initial reviews of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (of Henry Ward Beecher), the author did a fine job, though she was imprecise and incorrect in a number of instances. I think that this generation of spellers will show us all in a generation how important it is for knowledge to be as precise as possible. Indeed, I think a new focus on precision will revolutionize our conception of knowledge itself.
Further Thoughts on Precision
At present I think that America isn't yet rich enough to be fully precise, and that people of my generation, brought up in the 1960s and 1970s, are still under the sway of the psychobabblish notion that all you need is a good heart and then life will open up for you--so that somehow we got the impression that getting things as precisely right as possible isn't really that important. What do I mean that we aren't rich enough yet for precision? Perhaps I can answer that by telling a story.
When I was a doctoral student in early Christianity at Brown University in the late 1970s, I would spend most of my time immersed in ancient texts in a variety of languages. It often was extremely slow-going, and frequently if there was any modern translation of the ancient text it was in German or French. Many of the secondary works on these ancient texts were usually also in German, French or Italian. In short, I had to be a linguistic polymath in order to try to understand the field of early Christianity. I once remember discussing with one of my professors why this was the case. He patiently went down the list of all the most distinguished scholars in the field of Early Christianity (X is at Harvard, Y is at Yale, Z is at Princeton, etc.) and showed me how all the significant positions in the field were held by scholars from other lands, usually from Germany. He was also German. When we talked further he said to me, "America is a new nation; it has taken it 100 years just to figure out what form of government would "work" for it. Then, it took another 50 or so years to develop first-class colleges. When developing these colleges or universities it had to look elsewhere for models, and it found in Germany the model it sought. We are now (late 1970s) still in the time when America is drawing upon the wisdom of the "old world" in shaping its university. It will soon change."
And he was right. Within about 20 years after I completed my doctorate, the number of English-language translations of ancient texts skyrocketed. Quality secondary studies in English on ancient texts now abound (the British had always had some influence in the field, but the Americans began to "come on strong" in the 1980s and 1990s). Now almost all the "chairs" in New Testament/Early Christianity at significant American universities are now held by Americans. The times have changed in 30 years. The reason? Well, America is much "richer" now, and it has grown up considerably.
Returning to Spelling
I use this story to illustrate the point that we are still in a time of imprecise knowledge in America. The reason that Debby Applegate's book on Henry Ward Beecher, which won the Pulitzer Prize, could go to the press with errors is that we don't have enough resources to "check her out." In addition, as I mentioned, the values of the 1970s, when she probably was educated, didn't put as much emphasis on mastery as on affirming people. But this generation of spellers will teach us in the future that precision not only is valuable but is crucial to proper expansion of knowledge. Just as America has "grown up" in the field of Biblical Studies in the last generation because of our wealth, so we will grow up in our quest for precision in the next generation. One of my goals in my own intellectual quest, in fact, is to discover what I call "flowing precision" in writing and speech--where our sentences are packed with precise knowledge but with knowledge that flows as effortlessly as an unhindered river.
Well, I need to get back to Round 5 of the Spelling Bee, don't I? The next essay will do it.