Spelling Bee: Why English is so hard to spell

STORY: Why is English so hard to spell?

There are clear differences between how words are written and how they are said.

If English is your first language you may not realize it’s not that normal.

In fact, it’s virtually unique among the major alphabetic languages.

Take Italian or Finnish. They have spelling and pronunciation that line up much more readily, not like this:

If you grew up in the United States, chances are spelling bees were part of your childhood.

Decoding English from spoken to spelled is a tradition that’s almost 100 years old at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

So how did the English language get so convoluted in the first place?

First, let’s take a brief look at the history.

Reuters graphics reporter Travis Hartman.

(Travis Hartman, Reuters graphics reporter) "The British Isles, where the English language sort of is derived from, has been invaded by multiple people over the centuries. So you've got the Romans and the Vikings and the French all coming in and, therefore, the language was also sort of evolving and churning through these other people interacting. And as a result, the English language has become enmeshed with all these other languages altogether. That's a big part of why the English language is difficult to spell."

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet and roughly 44 sounds, depending on the dialect.

Vowels make up 20 or so of those sounds.

(Travis Hartman, Reuters graphics reporter) "The schwa sound, which is sort of this universal sound that is, it's the uh sound. You know, people say it all the time because it requires absolutely no effort with your mouth or tongue to create. You just say, uh. One of the experts I spoke with referred to it as a lump of clay that is sort of like shaped into all the other sounds. And it's also really interesting in that the schwa is, it can be represented by any vowel in the English language. So for example 'album,' it's the u, or 'syringe,' it's the y. This sound can creep up in all these different places, which is how the spelling bees are very difficult."

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been held almost every year since 1925.

The bee’s roots are drawn from the 1800’s, when smaller and more local grassroots competitions occurred across the states.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee carries on the tradition and uses the Merriam-Webster dictionary as its source of words.

The number of words the contestants could potentially be tested on during the first two rounds comes to about 4,000.

After that, any word in the dictionary is fair game, which jumps the word count to around 470,000.

In the last decade, spellers have raised the intensity of the competition,

culminating with the “octo-champs”, when eight spellers were all crowned co-champion in 2019.

(Travis Hartman, Reuters graphics reporter) “I think, you know, seeing young children doing these amazing feats of spelling and memorization and understanding is a really exciting thing to watch because there is high drama there. And the director of editorial content that I spoke with, she she phrased it as, you know, there aren't too many competitions that require perfection from their champions. And to make it through the spelling bee, to be the champion, you have to be perfect. And that's a really compelling thing to watch.”

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