A spelling bee combines all the worst aspects of childhood except compulsory rope-climbing. As a contestant, you must stand up and, under pressure, spell impossible words in front of adults under a system of arcane rules over which you have no control.
And all but one child — or two, in a tie — will be humiliated. Fun!
I saw a clip on one poor kid at the National Spelling Bee who started spelling a word, and then said “Can I start over?” did start over, spelled it correctly, and was eliminated for starting over.
Yesterday the Chronicle received an irate email from an agent named Wayne Alpern in New York, who rose to the defense of 13-year-old Siddharth Krishnakuma, a student at Pearland Junior High West.
At the National Spelling Bee, Siddharth ran aground on the word “minhag,” which I had never seen before, but which (according to dictionaryreference.com) means “a custom or procedure among Jews that is so firmly established as to have almost the binding force of law.”
Fair game, I guess. But Alpern contends the judge pronounced the word minHAG. (Siddharth went with “menhag.”) He says the word is properly pronounced MINhag, and that had it been pronounced right, Siddharth would have been much more likely to figure out the “i” sound.
He’s right, of course. I noodled around on Google and found three recordings of the word, and they all seem to say MINhag.
Alpern says his own child, in a school spelling bee, spelled “whimper” as “wimper” because the judge didn’t do the “wh” blowing-out-the-candle sound.
That one hit home. I’m an evangelist for the “wh” sound to the extent that a college friend used to call me “whole wheat.” (When I had a very bad college radio show, I once asked the program director how I was doing. He looked at me wearily and said, “At least you enunciate.”)
We pronouncers lead a hard and, yes, judge-y life. But the thing is, we’re right. If you’ve ever winced at hearing anyone say, “It’s a doggy dog world,” please remember that if everybody clearly said “dog eat dog,” that would never again happen.
The French are demon pronouncers of their own language, and they have wonderful maternal health care and free university, so who’s doing it wrong, eh?
I saw another snippet of the spelling bee in which a contestant was given the word “trebuchet,” pronounced as if the last syllable was “shet.” Now that’s a French word, so shouldn’t it be pronounced the French way, as in “shay”?
I found a YouTube video that, in fairness gave both pronunciations. But all four commenters on the video furiously side with me.
We are the pronouncers, and our name is Legion.