SERREFINE.

I usually miss the National Spelling Bee, but last night I managed to watch a good chunk of it (NY Times story, excited liveblogging at ReadySteadyGo); it’s fun to watch kids sweat over something as meaningless and yet (if you’re so inclined) riveting as the correct spelling of English words. I was rooting for Isabel Jacobson, but she went out on cyanophycean (a kind of algae); the eventual winner was Evan O’Dorney, who correctly spelled serrefine (“a small forceps for clamping a blood vessel”)—a pretty easy word to guess even if you didn’t already know it, compared to some of the doozies others had gotten: triticale, cachalot, fauchard all in Round 8, along with the word with far and away the best definition I heard all night, schuhplattler “a Bavarian courtship dance in which before the couple dances together the woman calmly does steps resembling those of a waltz while the man dances about her swinging his arms and slapping his thighs and the soles of his feet.”

Comments

  1. I enjoyed it, too. I saw most of it, and I agree, the winning word seemed much easier to guess than some of those from earlier rounds, with “unknown origins,” or origins in proper names.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I think that it is extremely unfair for those spelling bees to use words so far from common vocabulary, many of them from foreign languages (how did the French word cachalot ‘sperm whale’, which I have never seen in an English text, end up in a list of English words?). What do they prove? mostly that people have a good visual memory. The “good spellers” don’t even have to have read widely, as long as they have a large dictionary. Also, the teaching of English “language arts” to children is overly concerned with this sort of spelling, while keeping them in ignorance of the basic rules of their own language (“grammar” for many teachers being a list of what not to do).
    I wonder how widespread in the world this obsession with spelling of rare words is. In France there are similar events but they involve writing whole sentences or paragraphs under dictation: the challenge is partly to spell the individual words correctly and partly to make the spelling adjustments which are not reflected in the pronunciation but indicate grammatical elements (a simple example is the -s added for the plural but heard only under certain conditions). The point of the exercise therefore is to recognize and indicate structural relationships, something which requires some thought and awareness of linguistic structure, not just the visual memory of individual words.

  3. Quebec and the Netherlands also have dictées. In China it’s all about looking up obscure and difficult characters in large dictionaries, and similarly in Japan. Spelling bees seem to be unique to the anglophone nations.

  4. michael farris says:

    In Poland dictée is called dyktando and the texts are usually full of archaic and/or rare words and structured with punctuation traps.

  5. michael farris says:

    I would also tend to agree with those who question whether ‘Schuhplattler’ is an English word in any meaningful sense.
    Merely being listed in a dictionary somewhere does not necessarily fulfill the condition ‘meaningful’ for me.

  6. michael farris says:

    I would also tend to agree with those who question whether ‘Schuhplattler’ is an English word in any meaningful sense.
    Merely being listed in a dictionary somewhere does not necessarily fulfill the condition ‘meaningful’ for me.

  7. I find those spelling bees as an example of the American desire to be “the winner” or “the best” more than it has anything to do with being good at spelling.
    I remember seeing the documentary “Wordplay” about crossword aficionados, and I was so incredibly shocked to find national crossword competitions that people actually trained for.
    I really found it odd to see all these grown people taking something which is meant to be pleasurable and turning it into a stressful ordeal just to determine who is the “best” at it.

  8. The jumbled spelling of English words being what it is, the spirit of competition inherent in spelling bees most definitely serves a meaningful purpose. Back when I was in primary school, all the kids participated. Even amongst “known” bad spellers and lazy students there was a hefty desire not to get tossed out *too* soon! Many of us are better spellers as a result.
    I have to disagree with Marie-Lucie. Few (if any) successful spelling bee participants can afford to rely solely on visual memory. I came in second in my state in 7th grade and just barely missed making “the nationals.” But, like nearly all serious contestants, I worked exceedingly hard to learn the spelling “rules” of other languages – French, German, Greek, Spanish, Hungarian (etc) – as well as the meaning of thousands of roots and affixes, the etymology of thousands of words and much, much more. This acquired knowledge has benefited me in innumerable ways, and it sparked an interest in language which sees me – even today – journeying on holidays to distant lands to learn languages I’ll never need to know. Although I perceive this as a bit of an unhealthy obsession in myself, I find it an endearing trait in others!
    By the way, I’ve seen “cachalot” more than a few times in English texts. It was used as part of more than a couple of boat names where I grew up – probably the result of bad punning – guys boasting about the size of their boats, fishermens who “catch-a-lot” and so on, although one never knows for sure with boat names.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I would also tend to agree with those who question whether ‘Schuhplattler’ is an English word in any meaningful sense.
    Merely being listed in a dictionary somewhere does not necessarily fulfill the condition ‘meaningful’ for me
    .
    A few months ago on this blog there was a discussion where I made this very point, which many people disagreed with. I am glad that at least one person agrees with me. Comprehensive English dictionaries are grossly inflated as to the number of “English” words as a result, compared with the vocabulary of other languages.
    John, OK, you are right about different spelling rules depending on the origin of the word, but having to learn Hungarian rules in order to do well on a test of English seems to be way beyond what one should have the right to expect of English speakers, especially children.

  10. I remember reading something awhile back about a Scrabble champion who didn’t really know English. He memorized the whole Scrabble dictionary as strings of letters.

  11. I agree with John both about cachalot and about the usefulness of learning the spelling rules of other languages. I think, marie-lucie, you are succumbing to a couple of common tendencies: to regard words one has not personally seen used as “not a real part of English vocabulary” (really, words get into dictionaries for a reason, namely that they are found in actual English text, not that lexicographers pad their count with words from foreign lexicons, hoping no one will notice) and to prefer the things one grew up with and feels comfortable with (I presume you grew up with dictées rather than spelling bees). As someone who participated in and thoroughly enjoyed spelling bees as a youngster, I can assure you nobody is forced to memorize anything, including foreign-language rules; if you want to do well, you naturally learn those things, just as you learn how to calculate batting averages if you’re into baseball (at least you did when I was a kid — now I guess they use computers). While I did my share of dictées in French class, I can’t say I ever enjoyed them.
    As for schuhplattler, here’s a selection of citations from the OED:
    1905 W. D. MCCRACKAN Tyrol x. 82 The dancer extemporized as he threw down his money for the musicians. This pay gave him the privilege of the floor for his Ländler (waltz), or his Schuhplattler. 1920 D. H. LAWRENCE Women in Love xxix. 456 They were dancing all together, dancing the Schuhplatteln. 1958 M. WEST Second Victory i. 5 The orchestras played Strauss waltzes and the peasant troupes came in to dance the Schuhplattler and play the zither for local colour. 1960 Guardian 12 Apr. 8/7 Besides the yodelling.. there are the frolicsome Schuplaettler dances. 1962 Times 10 Nov. 11/7 The dancing of the schuhplattler forms a cheerful accompaniment to a stein of beer. 1976 Michigan Holiday News May 11/1 The Schuhplatter Dancers, the Bavarian contribution to the art of dance, occupy a unique place in the central Michigan area.
    I submit that a word that D.H. Lawrence used without explanation in a novel is an English word in good standing. The fact that it’s occasionally capitalized or in italics certainly indicates that a certain foreignness is felt, as is only natural, but that’s true of, say, schadenfreude as well, and I don’t think many people would dispute that that’s an English word. Words don’t magically switch from being exotic foreign items to being naturalized citizens in a flash; there’s a period in which they’re going around with green cards wearing foreign clothes and talking with an accent. They shouldn’t be cold-shouldered on that account.

  12. To the people who are railing against spelling bees, what exactly do you propose we do about this problem?
    This reminds me of the discussion of Chinese orthography.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    cyanophycean (a kind of algae)

    Ouch! Cyanobacteria are bacteria — they were even renamed (several decades ago) to reflect this fact.
    I’m not aware of anything similar to spelling bees in German-speaking areas. I suppose it could be done with the comma rules, but too few people know the German comma rules well enough that they could be judges in such a competition!
    I wonder if the whole competition meme comes, to a large extent, from Calvinism.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    To the people who are railing against spelling bees, what exactly do you propose we do about this problem?

    Sometime the strain between the spelling and the pronunciation of English will reach the breaking point. In the long run I expect something like this.

    This reminds me of the discussion of Chinese orthography.

    Me too. After all, English has the worst orthography of any language that (exclusively) uses an alphabet or syllabary.

  15. michael farris says:

    “a word that D.H. Lawrence used without explanation in a novel is an English word in good standing.”
    He didn’t use schuhplattler, he used ‘Schuhplatteln’, which might make a case for that form being in the dictionary but doesn’t do much for Schuhplattler.
    And all the examples seem to be included for reasons of adding local color and don’t seem to depend on the reader understanding just Schuplattler means (beyond a folk dance associated with the southern german speaking area)
    A word whose usage seems entirely restricted to Tyrolian travelogues and stories of emigrant folk festivals isn’t mainstream in my reckoning.
    I’d say schadenfreude is a lot farther on the way to being a ‘real’ English word, it’s not geographically limited in that way and has even appeared on the Simpsons (a better test for current standing that 85 year old literature imho).
    The real reason for including words like schuhplattler is because that’s the only way to whittle students down in extreme competition.
    English spelling is tough but not _that_ tough and almost anybody can learn to memorize all the roots and affixes needed for everyday usage. And lots and lots of people can memorize a lot more than that. So, the only way to choose a best in vocal spelling contests is to mine the marginal and/or specialist vocabulary that hardly anyone ever uses or needs. It may be fun for a certain kind of person, but hardly a skill as such.
    To get back to the kind of multi-lingual topic I like. Irish spelling is pretty weird/awful, are Gaelic spelling bees used to promote the language?

  16. Well, goddammit, that makes Qyrqyz an English word. And pHags-pa. And Ambatondrazaka. I’m gonna be running wild with this.

  17. Vishakapatnam.

  18. michael farris says:

    Google define turns up a dozen definitions of ‘otaku’ so I guess that’s mainstream (at least in the internet not to mention certain other japanese words that won’t get past a spam filter).

  19. michael farris says:

    Actually just nine, I thought I had scrolled when I hadn’t which confused me….

  20. I went out on Vishakhapatnam, however.

  21. A word whose usage seems entirely restricted to Tyrolian travelogues and stories of emigrant folk festivals isn’t mainstream in my reckoning.
    Well, of course it’s not “mainstream”! Who said it was? If you just want mainstream words used by everybody and his brother, get a pocket dictionary. An unabridged dictionary should include every word plausibly construed as part of the English vocabulary, even if only in restricted contexts. We only use obi when talking about Japanese traditional wear and sputnik when talking about the Russian space program; so what? They’re still good English words.

  22. michael farris says:

    Okay, mainstream isn’t the word I wanted… I’ll stick with ‘real’. ‘Real’ English words have certain features of usage that a lot of the words mentioned in this kind of context don’t have.
    I realize I’m prejudiced against keeping every word that any English speaker every used in the dictionary for all time (yes, that’s hyperbole).
    Partly this comes from trying to change marginally acceptable or plainly unacceptable forms in work written by non-native speakers and hearing “but I found it in the dictionary!”

  23. Cryptic Ned says:

    I agree with the anti-“Schuhplattler” contingent. In those OED citations it’s spelled 3 different ways. And in most of them it’s in italics, implying that it’s a foreign word thrown in for local color, like any other German word could be.
    As for “serrefine” being the winning word, that would be because it’s misleading. “Fauchard” would be more possible for the average person who has learned the rules of French orthography. “serrefine” resembles more common words in a misleading way.

  24. Partly this comes from trying to change marginally acceptable or plainly unacceptable forms in work written by non-native speakers and hearing “but I found it in the dictionary!”
    Ah! In that case, I feel your pain (having been in the same situation myself), but the solution is not to impoverish the English language but to explain the fact that not all linguistic forms are suitable for all occasions (something that has to be explained to native speakers as well, for that matter).

  25. Bplaa raa. English word.

  26. islingtonian says:

    “After all, English has the worst orthography of any language”
    Worse than Irish?
    We would never hold a competitive spelling bee in England because we realise that spelling is arbitrary. Even Shakeseare/Shakespear/Shakspear spelt his name several different ways. ‘Correct’ spelling is just a hoop for the anally-retentive to jump through.

  27. We would never hold a competitive spelling bee in England because we realise that spelling is arbitrary.
    What is Hard Spell?
    Search this page for “Is English the only language that has spelling bees?” and there’s an excerpt from an article where the author tried to find out what other countries have them. Unfortunately, the article isn’t online any more, though the methodology seems a little unsound anyway. rechtschreibungwettbewerb?

  28. For a number of years in the 1980s and 90s, I ran the Berkshire County Spelling Bee, now defunct, in LH’s neck of the Massachusetts woods. The winner got a trip to the national bee, but we never had one make it past round two or three of that affair. The local bee is about the most nerve-wracking thing you can imagine. Parents and teachers are out there, totally on edge. Kids come off the stage in tears. The judges and I would go out for a martini lunch afterward to get our nerves back under control. The only thing that sometimes avoided serious confrontations (ie., parents who heard one thing when the kid said something else) was that we taped the whole thing and the judges could ask for instant replays when in doubt. The kids that make it to those final rounds in Washington have put as much into this as the kids that get into Olympic ice skating or gymnastics. On one level it’s nice that the ones with brains have an opportunity just like the ones with athletic skills. On the other hand, both endeavors are pretty unnatural.

  29. Well, goddammit, that makes Qyrqyz an English word. And pHags-pa. And Ambatondrazaka. I’m gonna be running wild with this.

    Minor niggle (but we are discussing competition spelling) : Phags-pa or hPhags-pa or ḥPhags-pa or ‘Phags-pa or hP’ags-pa or ḥP’ags-pa but not pHags-pa (the h, ḥ or apostrophe is a silent prefix, so the capitalization is on the P of the letter Pha or P’a).

  30. Get it right and put it in the bee, I say.

  31. “Cachalot” is in Moby Dick a few times, although one instance is French, not English.
    cheers,
    Mike O’Dorney (Evan’s dad)

  32. marie-lucie says:

    In that case, I must have seen it when I read Moby Dick, but that was over 30 years ago and I don’t recollect it since.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    I mean I don’t recollect seeing the word in English since.

  34. michael farris says:

    “the solution is not to impoverish the English language but to explain the fact that not all linguistic forms are suitable for all occasions”
    Here’s where we differ. I don’t think that English is ‘impoverished’ by not having Shuhplattler and the like in an unabridged dictionary and it’s not ‘enriched’ by having them. I do think that Schuhplattler and its variants might be at home in a dictionary of unnativized foreign expressions. I do think that lederhosen, oktoberfest, biergarten and some others are fully nativized and where that line could and should be drawn is not always clear, but I think it’s a valid distinction.
    And while the national spelling bees may seem to be a little ridiculous, at the local (intra-school) level they do serve a valuable purpose. They use a compelling cultural value (competition) to help teach an intricate (needlessly so?) system that students need to know. I remember practicing for spelling bees with friends and our spelling mostly did get better.

  35. michael farris says:

    “explain the fact that not all linguistic forms are suitable for all occasions”
    oops, forgot to comment on this, but I’m constantly surprised at what a hard sell that (to me obvious) idea is.
    I’ve also noticed that using examples from the non-native speaker of English’s native language (when possible) only gets agreement that of course in Polish (or German or Spanish) you can’t use different words with similar meanings interchangeably, after all there are _standards_ in _those_ languages. But in English? Who cares about things like that in _English_?
    I assume this is related to the phenomenon that (as far as I can perceive) non-native speakers of English often want it to be a very different kind of language than native speakers want it to be.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Worse than Irish?

    From what I’ve read (mostly on Wikipedia), I think so. Apparently Irish is graphemic: if you look at a word, and have mastered the (monstrous) rules for how to pronounce every grapheme under all circumstances, you can pronounce the word unambiguously and correctly. The same holds for French (except for a few small common words, like eu, and proper names). It only holds for English 85 % of the time.
    Incidentally, German is not quite graphemic either. For example, sometimes vowel length is marked, sometimes vowel shortness is marked, and sometimes neither is marked and you have to know the word. Phonemic stress is not marked either. But these instances are much rarer than in English, and German is much more phonemic than English or French.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    That said, Irish makes me want to go Stalinist and impose a Mongolian-style Cyrillic orthography… one can dream. :^)

  38. mollymooly says:

    Irish orthography after the 1948 spelling reforms is quite regular for someone who speaks the Caighdeán Oifigiúil fluently. The number of such people is approximately zero. Native speakers speak one of the dialects which are averaged out in the official standard. Anglophone schoolchildren (at best) pronounce words using the nearest available Hiberno-English phonemes augmented by [x] and [G], so spelling often seems to allow the insertion of one or more random silent bh, dh, gh, etc clusters in the middle of a word. In the spelling tests we did in primary school, a lot of kids thought it wasn’t fair that you were penalised for “leaving out the fada” (long accent).

  39. marie-lucie says:

    French is not that hard to learn to read, but it is hard to learn to write. In English, both reading and writing are difficult.
    In German, graphic clusters like sch and tsch probably make life hard for beginners (these clusters used in Romantsch disfigure the language, ex. tschintsch meaning ‘5’, which using a slightly modified Italian style of spelling could be simply cinc). In German also, the custom of writing compounds as single words, resulting in very long words, makes these words hard to decipher. The lack of indication of the glottal stop is also a hindrance, as CV can indicate either CV or C?V. But it is true that German is usually a lot more straighforward than French or English. I don’t know Irish but it looks horrendous to learn to write.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    The Justin Rye proposal (which is tongue-in-cheek, as he says at the end) mentions the recent French spelling reform getting rid of the circumflex accent as in chateau instead of château. I for one am upset at this reform, as I pronounce a and â very differently: to me chateau does not bring to mind a castle but looks like it should have something to do with a cat (chat).
    I have read French works on pronunciation, to the effect that “nobody pronounces words X and Y differently anymore” or “in the past word X was not pronounced the same as word Y” – as often happens, people who write such things use their own pronunciation as the norm, they have not been surveying the whole country. I have not lived in France for a long time, but when I go back for a visit I cannot help hearing how people speak, and in my own family even the young people are making the same distinctions as I do. However, my family members live mostly in a region of conservative speech, although some of them are in Paris, the melting pot.
    The French Ministry of Education (not the Académie Française!) is making such spelling decisions for the whole country, but French is not spoken only in France: in particular, there are millions of speakers in Canada, and their pronunciation is a very conservative one – there would be no reason at all to ban the circumflex accent in Canada.
    Besides Paris being a melting pot, therefore a place where one can expect pronunciation to become simplified, for generations many schoolteachers have come from the South (a poorer area, originally Occitan-speaking, with few vowels) to teach in the North (a richer area, where local varieties of French have more vowels). Southern people do not make a difference for instance between a and â, pronouncing just a for both. Teachers who are unable to link the difference in spelling of la tache ‘the spot or stain’ and la tâche ‘the task’ to a difference in pronunciation that their students are making naturally, will tend to get mixed up about which is which, and mix up the students as well, so that the circumflex is sometimes used where it should not (as in the spelling bâteau instead of bateau ‘boat’, perhaps by an erroneous analogy with bâtard ‘bastard (in the original sense)’. Not everyone is following the reform, for instance Le Monde and other serious media do not, because there are many people like me for whom the circumflex is not just a now useless flourish but a reflection of their own pronunciation.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    sorry, this comment should have been with the Justin Rye thread.

  42. Cyrillic Mongolian uses the whole Russian alphabet even though a number of letters aren’t needed except for transliterating Russian words. When I was still studying Mongolian I spent some time trying to find uses of the hard sign and the soft sign, and AFAIK they’re never used. IIRC the yodicized vowels aren’t needed either.
    Old-style Mongolian script is graphically pleasing to me, but it would be inadequate even if words really were pronounced that way. (I.e., because of phonetic change the written forms are all wrong, but without the phonetic changes it still would be problematic.)

  43. I can’t believe how many people here have never heard the word schuhplattler in an English context. If you spend any time in any American city with a large German-American population (i.e. most of them), you’re going to encounter schuhplattler at one time or another. I’ve been familiar with the word at least since high school.
    If schuhplattler isn’t an English word, then what about waltz, or tango? If you see people waltzing, you say, “Those people are waltzing.” Should I italicize waltz as a foreign word? If you go to any one of hundreds of German-American festivals that occur every year, you will see schuhplattler. “Oh, look,” you’ll say, “They’re doing a schuhplattler. Ye gods, it’s annoying. Let’s go somewhere else.” (In truth, most people would call it “that crazy German foot-slapping dance with all the hooting,” but that doesn’t change the fact that schuhplattler is what it’s called — in English.)

  44. Take that, schuhplattler-haters!

  45. Paul Clapham says:

    I used to be in spelling competitions when I was in school, all those decades ago, and I can tell you it isn’t all memorization. Once I was asked to spell the word “viscid”. Well, I had never heard of it and said so. I thought “v-i-c-i-d”, but then they gave it to me in a sentence: “The stems of the petunias were viscid.”
    Right, I thought, same root as “viscous”. Must be “v-i-s-c-i-d”. I got mentioned in the newspaper report for that one. No memorization there.

  46. The rules of athletic competitions, which many people find absorbing, entertaining, and even endeavors of value, are completely arbitrary. People spend a lot of time practicing for these. They are praised for doing well at them.
    It stands to reason that there should be academic competitions as well (spelling bees, quiz bowls, math competitions, Olympics of the Mind, etc.). Their rules are just as arbitrary. They are also absorbing, entertaining, and valuable endeavors.
    Heck, it’s *nice* for a nerd to get praised at a pep rally. (Even if, to my memory, the praise from the principal’s lips was ironic, and the football players made fun of my quick-recall prowess for the rest of the year.)

  47. xiaolongnu says:

    OK, I’m weighing in late because my in-laws have been in town. But I’m a veteran of the National Spelling Bee (second place, 1985, which may allow somebody to identify me, but so be it — I’m not trying to be anonymous, just un-Googlable). I have to point out two things in answer to some points which have been raised:
    1. The nature of the word lists have changed significantly in the last 22 years. When I was in the spelling bee, the words were unusual but not so much that an educated person mightn’t encounter them: cappuccino, fescue, farrago (the last being my downfall). There was NOTHING like the words they report now, for obscure surgical instruments etc. In fact, I was a little outraged at “fescue” but only because I was from Maine, where it doesn’t grow (it’s a type of bluegrass, fwiw). On the other hand, I wouldn’t have blinked at “cachalot,” for the same reason.
    2. John, I hate to contradict you because I think you are probably right for most cases, that people do learn rules from different languages. But I am one of those spellers who did it all by visual memory — even now when I spell a word I have to visualize it to see if it looks right. I did not spend any time on orthographic rules and at the time I was in the spelling bee, I did not know any language other than English.
    I have to add the following because it is relevant. I don’t think it says anything about me: rather, it says something about how the National Spelling Bee has changed in 22 years. I was able to succeed in the spelling bee mostly by luck and by being extremely widely read by the standards of 13 year olds in 1985. I did *not* study at all for any of the bees I was in, and if you had suggested that I should, I would not have thought that winning the bee was worth doing something as dull as memorizing words. The kid who did win that year skipped all the activities in Washington DC (Arlington National Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial, Air and Space Museum, etc.) to stay in his hotel room and study, and I remember even then thinking that it was a colossal waste of an experience.
    The 1985 bee did not have a written component; it was just a larger-scale version of the classic elimination-style bee. And I cannot imagine I was the only student who decided not to put serious time into studying. That’s what I see as the biggest difference: the professionalization of the operation (ESPN, for chrissakes). I was sort of appalled, if also fascinated, by the documentary “Spellbound,” primarily because of the endless strategizing and drilling and studying that seemed to be involved. That’s the part that bothers me the most. While I think it’s amusing to have a national spelling contest (in fact, I think it shows a certain sense of humor in the face of English orthography), when it becomes “big league” in this way, I think the point has been entirely lost. I won $500 and a set of Britannica encyclopedias — I think the guy who won got $1000. And to me the trip to DC was the real prize. That’s the kind of perspective I’d wish to see preserved, if at all possible.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    these clusters used in Romantsch disfigure the language

    Yeah. That was a really stupid idea.
    I haven’t encountered a tetragraph for a phoneme anywhere else than in Kabardian (a language in the Caucasus written just with the 33 Russian letters, so there may not be another way to cope with a labialized uvular affricate). — In German, tsch can at least be argued to be a consonant cluster.

    The lack of indication of the glottal stop is also a hindrance

    North: Put a glottal stop in front of every stressed syllable that would otherwise start with a vowel.
    South: Put a glottal stop in front of every utterance that would otherwise start with a vowel. Like in French or English.

    for generations many schoolteachers have come from the South

    Interesting.

    Not everyone is following the reform

    I’m under the impression nobody does. I could be wrong, though.

    Cyrillic Mongolian uses the whole Russian alphabet even though a number of letters aren’t needed except for transliterating Russian words.

    Correct. Stalinism at work again.

    When I was still studying Mongolian I spent some time trying to find uses of the hard sign and the soft sign, and AFAIK they’re never used. IIRC the yodicized vowels aren’t needed either.

    Oh, the soft sign is in real use, because modern Mongolian does have palatalized consonants (not as many as Russian, though). The Gobi is now -[g̥ɔvʲ], and accordingly spelled -говь (I haven’t seen the word alone so far, only in compounds). The iotated vowels are likewise in real use because the usual cyrillic policy of denying the existence of /j/ is followed. The hard sign would be needed, then, if a iotated vowel follows a consonant that can be but is not palatalized (I don’t know if that happens).

  49. marie-lucie says:

    Put a glottal stop in front of every utterance that would otherwise start with a vowel. Like in French or English.
    French: Oral French is difficult at first for speakers of Germanic languages because the tendency of the language is to make syllables regardless of word boundaries, by linking the final consonant of one word with the initial vowel of another, as in une amie ‘a (female) friend’ pronounced “u-na-mie’, not “?une ?amie” (“?” being the glottal stop). This makes it difficult for persons unfamiliar with the language or with certain words to recognize where words begin and end (as well as being a source of puns for native speakers). An initial glottal stop might be used by some speakers, but only for emphasis, for instance in order to clearly separate the two words to make them distinct for a small child or a foreigner. But even in this case, this separation could be indicated without the use of a glottal stop.
    English: among other possible examples, the indefinite article is an instead of a in front of a vowel, and the final n makes a syllable with the next word, as in an apple sounding (in normal rapid speech) almost like a napple (at least as far as the n is concerned). If there was a glottal stop at the beginning of apple, the article would be a as before another consonant, thus “?a ?apple”.
    The following example (from at least one American speaker) is often quoted in linguistics textbooks : “I could eat a whole nother apple“. Here the word another (= an + other) is decomposed into a and nother. This could not happen if it was still pronounced as two words, “?an ?other”.
    “Not everyone is following the reform.”
    – I’m under the impression nobody does. I could be wrong, though.

    It would depend on who you talk to and where they are from, and also the expected readership of the specific media. I have even seen a lack of â ‘s in a textbook for teaching French to anglophones, but that could be excessive zeal in following the latest injunctions.

  50. I find the term “spelling bee” interesting in itself, as “bee” basically reflects cooperative rather than competitive efforts. The OED says:
    4. In allusion to the social character of the insect (originally in U.S.): A meeting of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number; e.g. as is done still in some parts, when the farmers unite to get in each other’s harvests in succession; usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting, as apple-bee, husking-bee, quilting-bee, raising-bee, etc. Hence, with extended sense: A gathering or meeting for some object; esp. spelling-bee, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words. lynching bee: see LYNCHING vbl. n.
    However, lynching bee is clearly cooperative, if sarcastic, leaving spelling bee semantically isolated.
    As for orthographic irregularity, the amiable folks of the Conlang list introduced the adjectives etabnannimous (pronounced “ramnannimous”) and maggelitinous to distinguish orthographies like French and Irish, which are rule-governed, but with insanely complicated rules, from those which are not rule-governed at all. English is about 10-15% maggelitinous, 50% straightforward, and the rest etabnannimous. (The abstract nouns, if anyone cares, are etabnannity and maggelity.)

  51. I haven’t encountered a tetragraph for a phoneme anywhere else …
    Of course you mean a regular correspondence between the two. English and French, with their etymological spelling, have words where four letters result in one phoneme.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    For instance, the word eaux [o] ‘waters’, the plural of eau [o], and other words with the same letters at the end, for instance château(x) ‘castle(s)’, bateau(x) ‘boat(s)’ and cadeau(x) ‘gift(s)’. Also names ending in ault [o] as in Renault or Arsenault, or in oult [u] as in Saint-Evroult. Most of these letters were pronounced separately at one time: a 16th century writer praising the qualities of the French language (in order to justify using it instead of Latin for serious writing) commented on the beauty of the diphthongs and triphthongs (not in those terms, but that is what he meant) – a far cry from modern French pronunciation.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    If schuhplattler isn’t an English word, then what about waltz, or tango?
    No doubt my experience has been limited, but I am sure I had never seen the word schuhplattler in print or heard of this peculiar dance, before reading about it here. The waltz was exported from Germany or Austria about 200 years ago and became wildly popular in other European countries, so that people started waltzing – using the word as a verb as well as a noun, something which shows that it has been thoroughly incorporated into the English language (and even more in French: la valse/valser/un valseur ‘the waltz/to waltz/a waltz dancer’).
    The tango is a more recent import from Argentina – the word is a verb in the saying It takes two to tango (no doubt it is used here because it continues the t alliterative series) but I am not sure anyone would say They are tangoing rather than They are dancing/doing the tango. Apparently this dance is becoming more popular in North America, as an activity to participate in rather than just for watching in a movie or other spectator venue, so perhaps the verb usage will become more widespread. And what about the polka, which was also very popular at a time and still is in some quarters: does anyone say They are polkaing? or did the popularity of this dance wane before its name was used as a verb?
    As for the German dance, does anyone use its name as a verb? Even the writer of the paragraph above did not use They are schuhplattlering. Perhaps this verbal form will develop if this dance becomes popular outside of the German-American community. In the meantime, it seems to me that its use is too restricted for it to qualify as an English word. Others may disagree with me, as they have before! but my cultural background is different and on this kind of topic we can agree to disagree. Schuhplattlerers, unite and multiply!

  54. David Marjanović says:

    Oral French is difficult at first for speakers of Germanic languages because the tendency of the language is to make syllables regardless of word boundaries, by linking the final consonant of one word with the initial vowel of another […]

    I know. That’s why I wrote “utterance” rather than “word”. An utterance can be a whole sentence or even more.
    Besides, northern German (with “Lu?ise”, “Be?amter”, “Na?omi”, and “?Astero?iden und Kometen”) is not representative of all Germanic languages! 🙂 The examples (encountered on TV) all strike me as exotic-to-risible, and my mother tongue is German, just not northern German.

    Of course you mean

    Yes.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    (French word-linking) I know. That’s why I wrote “utterance” rather than “word”. An utterance can be a whole sentence or even more.
    Even if you refer to “utterance” rather than “word”, it does not follow that French is like German in inserting glottal stops before vowels. That would be a very exaggerated pronunciation of the language. I say “une amie” not “?une amie” in starting a sentence. Perhaps the Northern German varieties are not using the glottal stop as much as the Southern ones, some of which sound “choppy”?

  56. Lu?ise … exotic-to-risible
    Key to Howard Dietz’ German (and mock-accented English) lyrics for Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon.
    Southern American doesn’t fare much better: “we all is ready.”

  57. David Marjanović says:

    I say “une amie” not “?une amie” in starting a sentence.

    It’s not a loud glottal stop, but still… Well, I need to listen more, but I’ve often encountered a glottal stop in French. (Just never in front of oui.)

    Perhaps the Northern German varieties are not using the glottal stop as much as the Southern ones, some of which sound “choppy”?

    No, no, no: the northern ones put a glottal stop in front of every stressed syllable that would otherwise begin with a vowel: Lu?ise, Be?amter, Na?omi, ?Astero?iden und Kometen, Be?ate… As a result, vowel clusters are completely absent from northern German.
    The southern ones only use glottal stops utterance-initially. That means that in the above examples I only pronounce the one in front of Asteroiden, and even that only if it’s utterance-initial. When I first encountered Na?omi (on TV, fortunately), with its long, loud glottal stop (perhaps due to the preceding short vowel), I laughed, because I understood na — Omi!! “now — granny!!”, as if the little girl that kept hurting herself in stupid ways suffered from senile dementia.
    (Besides, I’d stress the first syllable of Naomi. But the result contains a vowel cluster. Vowel clusters are unthinkable in northern Germany, so people there insert a glottal stop, and the glottal stop attracts the stress… so they can’t stress the first syllable.)
    There are other ways, too, in which northern German sounds more chopped than southern. My dialect (that is, not Austrian Standard German) revels in contractions to the point of verging on the polysynthetic. Mwahah. But I digress. 🙂

  58. Hussaini says:

    I guess the spelling bee is all about competition. While the O’Dorney kid won it, I feel the Canadian kid is best of the pack bcos of the speed at which he figures out how to spell the words.
    I think the bee has its flaws, but its exciting watching kids in competitions that would go a long way in improving their character.
    Congrats to the O’Dorney kid.

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