I have to post about the National Spelling Bee that was broadcast last night; I’m fond of spelling bees in general (I still remember being furious with myself in grade school for blowing the word Christmas), but this one was particularly notable because the winning word was Ursprache ‘protolanguage’—a word dear to the heart of this Indo-Europeanist manqué. (It’s pronounced OOR-shprah-khuh, but the NPR newsreader who announced the result this morning made it rhyme with rake, which annoyed me mightily.) Oddly, the word that eliminated the second-place finisher (Canadian Finola Hackett, who’d lucked out with a string of French-derived words she handled easily) was also pure German (to the point of usually being capitalized): Weltschmerz. (The poor girl, after much agonizing, started off “V…”) Also oddly, several of the other late-round words were language-related as well: tmesis, koine, and tutoyer. Next year look out for laryngeal and aphaeresis!


  1. I overall enjoyed watching the bee, but their reliance on the common names for plants and animals baffles me. These are some of the most volatile items in the lexicon, and asking for the “correct” spelling (or pronunciation) of a word like “towhee” seems somewhat silly. I did like the color commentary, though.

  2. I’m not sure what you mean about volatility. Merriam-Webster, for instance, only gives one spelling for towhee, and it doesn’t seem unfair to expect contestants to know it.

  3. “[…T]he NPR newsreader who announced the result this morning made [Ursprache] rhyme with rake […].”
    As in, “I’ve got such a terrible pain in my ursp?” Oy vey.

  4. “[…T]he NPR newsreader who announced the result this morning made [Ursprache] rhyme with rake […].”
    As in, “I’ve got such a terrible pain in my urspr?” Oy vey.

  5. Um, oops. (Hit “post” when I meant to hit “preview,” then tried to backpedal, but was too slow.)

  6. Thanks to you, I just learned a new word: manqué. Your blog is very popular, so I’d say you’re not a manqué of any sort. 🙂

  7. I’d never have expected tutoyer to be listed as an English word. I thought the English equivalent was “to use tu to” or “to thee-and-thou”. Are there other Romance infinitives that have become English verbs, with normal English inflections? Probably I’m overlooking some common one, but it seems bizarre.

  8. That surprised me as well, but the OED shows it’s been used since the 17th century:
    1697 J. DENNIS Plot & no Plot II. 24 There is an air of greatness in Tutaying men. 1819 Hermit in London III. 159 They [nobles] often tutoyered the leading favourite. 1840 C. FOX Jrnls. & Lett. vi. (1882) 53 He.. promised to tutoyer us as long as we liked, but not to answer to thee. 1852 MRS. BROWNING Lett. 7 Apr. (1897) II. 63 The Greek in Greek costume who tutoyéd her, and kissed her. 1861 T. HEYWOOD S. Lancs. Dial. in Chetham Misc. III. 9 Tutoying still pervades South Lancashire. 1865 KINGSLEY Herew. xvi, He was growing warm, and began to tutoyer Hereward. 1895 Edin. Rev. Oct. 386 Freron thought he perceived.. that ‘tutoying’ might be displeasing to him,.. so he instantly substituted ‘vous’.
    And no, I can’t offhand think of any parallels.

  9. “[…T]he NPR newsreader who announced the result this morning made [Ursprache] rhyme with rake […].”
    “Also Sprake Zarathustra.”

  10. What, him also?

  11. Do the organizers of the national spelling bee select a standard accent for presenters, like network newscaster / Chicago? If not, I could see an opportunity for trouble. For instance, with regional homophones like caught/cot or court/quart.

  12. diodoros says

    I’m sorry but Ursprache,Weltschmerz and tutoyer are foreign words that can under relatively unusual circumstances be used in English. They are not loan words as they are always (in my experience)pronounced as they are in the language they are from. In fact anyone pronouncing them as though they were English is the Ursache of much Weltschmerz if not Schadenfreude.
    It is a vtip that such words can be used in an English language spelling bee.

  13. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. It is the job of professional lexicographers to decide what is and is not a part of English, and they have decided, based on their immense files of usage examples, that these words are. It is not for the rest of us, who are exposed to comparatively minuscule bits of the language, to second-guess them without some better basis than “I don’t like it.” And the words are not “pronounced as they are in the language they are from”; if they were, Ursprache and Weltschmerz would have uvular r‘s as in German and tutoyer would have an umlauted u sound as in French. They are anglicized, just like other loan words you would presumably accept, like résumé and blitzkrieg. The only one I had my doubts about was tutoyer, but the OED’s selection of citations convinced me. Just because I wasn’t familiar with it doesn’t make it alien; the English language isn’t the personal property of you or me or any one person.

  14. As so often happens, I can answer my own question with a little searching. I’m sure all this is well-known to people with middle-school-aged children.
    The national pronouncer is Jacques A. Bailly, who teaches classics at UVM. He is the 1980 champion representing the Rocky Mountain News (elucubrate). If that means he grew up in Denver, then I believe he has merged cot/caught. And if that’s how young he is, then he probably has merged witch/which. And two of mary/marry/merry. In his ordinary life, that is, not his professional pronouncing capacity.
    It’s a careful articulation of the phonemic pronunciation given by the dictionary of record, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. There is a whole set of study guides, which includes audio files of Dr. Bailly pronouncing and giving definitions. Interestingly enough, this includes fully articulated schwas, which sound quite unnatural to me. One usually substitutes a short vowel when talking artificially dictinctly. But he sticks to what the dictionary says.
    Of course, there are non-phonemic allophones that aren’t in the pronunciation and which happen automatically. Like VOT for unvoiced stops and initial glottal stops. And I think these do vary a little from dialect to dialect, as do precise vowel positions. But it doesn’t take much time for a native speaker to clue in to any variation.
    There is also an interesting (well, to me) discussion of what to do about alveolar flaps here. Apparently the last pronouncer always did /t/. (If I understand what they are saying rightly. Which would mean that rider was writer. Some people always do /d/. Some do whichever the spelling suggests.) Dr. Bailly gives “the most frequently heard and familiar pronunciation”, but will give a /t/ if asked for an alternate. Now I’m not 100% sure whether they’re saying he gives the frequently heard rapid pronunciation, but slow, that is, a carefully articulated flap (which would sound a bit weird) or that he does whichever of /d/ or /t/ most people do when speaking slowly.

  15. “”…It’s pronounced OOR-shprah-khuh…”
    No, its not!
    There’s no “k”-sound in it 🙂

  16. I’m not sure what you mean by that, but perhaps you’re not familiar with the convention by which “kh” represents the fricative found in, e.g., Bach.

  17. Not to change the topic too much-
    Could you please clarify what type of language qualifies as an ursprache? For example, I know that Proto-Indo-European is one. But would classical Latin and Sanskrit qualify since they are ancestors of so many languages? Or are they too recent and documented?
    I guess what I’m really wondering is whether an ursprache is by definition a hypothetical reconstruction instead of a documented language.

  18. The OED defines it as “A hypothetical parent language from which actual languages or dialects have been derived,” so PIE would qualify and Latin and Sanskrit wouldn’t. (I fixed your comment per your correction.)

  19. Something I have long wondered about spelling bees: do they exist for languages other than English?
    It has always struck me that the whole reason spelling bees are interesting is because English spelling doesn’t match the pronunciation.
    And yes, Fur Ball is commonly used as name for a humane society fundraiser. The cat shelter I’m on the board of calls its annual fundraiser the Fur Ball.
    I’ve never even tried to read Finnegan’s Wake.

  20. Oh, I don’t doubt that Fur Ball is commonly used as a name for a humane society fundraiser, just that that’s what most Americans associate with the phrase.

  21. Het Groot Dictee is kind of like a spelling bee. Language Log post.

  22. Jimmy Ho says

    In France, the tradition of “dictée” as entertainment is said to have been popularized by Prosper Mérimée (author of La guzla, Carmen, etc.) at the court of Napoléon III. I think the the “Dicos d’or” (a national dictée contest hosted by “TV literator” Bernard Pivot) are still held every year.

  23. MMcM, unfortunately it looks like David Beaver’s planned “triblogy” was never completed.
    I am happy to see that Language Log has finally dispensed with its silly frame, so that http://www.language.com just redirects to http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/ (meaning bookmarks and the location field are no longer nonfunctional on Language Log). It still has the gray body text, though.

  24. The English version of the work by Nietsche is “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The German original was titled “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Your memory seems to be combining the titles!
    Anyway, NPR announcers and champion spellers ought to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the pronunciation of major European languages to get a simple word like Ursprache right–n’est-ce pas?

  25. Tracy, I think Andrew’s “Sprake” was a joke.

  26. bill hahn says

    apparently i’m not as familiar as i might be with the spelling bee. while i can certainly understand words of foreign origin, ursprache isn’t from german it is a german word. if that is suitable material for the bee, why not weltanschaung, gemutlichkeit or geheimestaatspolizei?(sorry, i don’t know how to do an umlaut in this wp program.)

  27. No, it’s an English word. It’s in all large dictionaries. Weltanschauung is also an English word. Clearly they’re not as naturalized as, say, kindergarten, but they’ve got their green cards, so to speak.

  28. s langham says

    ch as in bach is not pronounced k it’s pronounced as a guttural ch, sounds like someone clearing their throat and exists in other language too, welsh being one of them.

  29. s langham says

    only americans have spelling bees as only americans see any point in being able to spell lots of words whose meanings you don’t understand. But all English speaking countries have an inability to pronounce the guttural ch.

  30. jonnie savell says

    “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. … the English language isn’t the personal property of you or me or any one person.”
    You responded to a protest with a cluster bomb. What a bitch!

  31. Huh? You call that a “cluster bomb”? You must spend your time on very genteel sites indeed, dedicated to needlepoint perhaps. It seems to me a perfectly straightforward populist statement. Do you think the English language is somebody’s personal property?

  32. jonnie savell says

    “Do you think the English language is somebody’s personal property?”
    No. I believe that your response was too polemical. Yes, I am the one who used the word ‘bitch’ and I am the owner of this act of hypocrisy.
    The claim that the specified words reside outside of the English language may in fact be incorrect. But, the sharpness of the response was not warranted.

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