Why Americans Need Spelling Bees and Vocabulary Tests

Until we have a better appreciation for the English language, we need all the help we can get

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Spelling bees have always been cute. But they’re about to get cuter, because now they will actually be about something. The National Spelling Bee has announced that hereafter, contestants will have to know the definitions of words as well as how to write them out. The latter is brute mechanics, which only became a thing to master and compete in because of English’s awkward and random spelling system. In countries where writing actually corresponds regularly with how words are pronounced, there is no such thing as a spelling bee.

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Yet in those countries, there is often more of a love for the language itself, even among less educated people. And loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday. This appreciation shows up in things they say that would not “translate” into American. A Russian friend of mine once said she fell in love with her husband because of “his Russian.” Note how hard it is to imagine an American woman saying what hooked her on her hubby was “his English.” “The way he talked,” maybe. But not something as specific as his command of the language in an artistic sense. Russians tend to have strophes of Pushkin memorized, including modern, “hip” Russians with no leaning towards the antiquarian.

I recently attended a conference where Castillians gave the opening addresses, in a distinctly formal layer of Spanish. In English this would have sounded extremely stuffy even at a university. You can buy volumes of high literature and poetry at an ordinary train station in Spain. At Long Island railroad stops, not.

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Yet even in America, there was once a richer love of English for its own sake. H.L. Mencken knocked Warren Harding for “the worst English that I have ever encountered.” Today we have knocked George W. Bush for “the way he talks” but not something as formal as “his English.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that she thought her mother would be good for a newspaper job because “She writes such beautiful English.” We wouldn’t put a recommendation that way today. Today we live in a society where in 2001, then President of the University of California Richard Atkinson got good press with his announced horror that high school students “spend hours each month — directly and indirectly — preparing for the SAT, studying long lists of verbal analogies such as ‘untruthful is to mendaciousness’ as ‘circumspect is to caution’.” In the old days, that tableau was called, well, school.

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Currently, America’s love of language focuses on the informal. Rap and spoken word have reawakened the country to poetry in itself. Texting and Twitter encourage creative uses of casual language, in ways I have celebrated widely. But we’ve fallen behind on savoring the formal layer of our language. Critics such as Stefan Fatsis at Slate have argued that adding a comprehension component to the spelling bee is, ironically, “small-minded.” It isn’t. It’s getting back in touch with loving our native language, something ordinary in most cultures on earth—but so long unknown to us that the Fatsises and Atkinsons among us can barely imagine it.