Archive for Contests

Spelling bee 2021 – Indian streak broken!

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Creative kanji

[The following is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

The results are in from the 11th Kanji Creation Contest (Sōsaku Kanji Kontesuto), sponsored by Sankei Shinbun newspaper and the Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture at Ritsumeikan University. Out of a total of over 26,000 entries in the general, high school, and elementary and middle school divisions, the overall winner was a very 2020 take on the character 座 (za, “to sit”).

Example 1

Fig. 1 Standard (left) and prizewinning creative kanji for “to sit.”

The character (in both its standard and creative forms) is made up of three elements:

  1. 广

Of these, it is the last that is subtly manipulated here. That element, also an independent kanji in its own right, means “person.” By moving the two “people” apart, the contest winner expressed the idea of “sitting apart,” or social distancing.

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What happened to the spelling bee this year?

Like so many other good things in this annus horribilis, COVID killed it.

For quite a few years now, I have reported on the national spelling bee (usually in May).  This has been such a dismal year that I didn't make an effort to inquire about what happened with it this spring.  Now, however, as I am preparing a post on Indian feats of memorization, I could not help but wonder about the fate of the 2020 national spelling bee.  Here's what I found out.

"Tough words, little drama, familiar champ in virtual bee"May 29, 2020)

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Spelling Bee 2019

I'll let this incredible ESPN (it's a sport, after all) video speak for itself:

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The "riddle of the rock"

Hugh Schofield, "France asks: Can you solve the riddle of the rock?", BBC News 5/10/2019:

A village in western France is offering a €2,000 (£1,726) prize for help in deciphering a 230-year-old inscription found on a rock on a remote beach.

Until now no-one has been able to make out the meaning of the 20 lines of writing, discovered a few years ago.

The metre-high slab is in a cove accessible only at low tide near the Brittany village of Plougastel.


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"Striving": domestic Chinese character of the year

Ladies and gentlemen, here it is:

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Japanese buzzwords

The buzzwords of the year (Shingo/Ryūkōgo Taishō 新語・流行語大賞) have been announced.  As Nathan Hopson, who called the results to my attention, puts it:

With the caveat that this is a contest run by a private company that publishes an annual collection of new and important words, and that there's a lot of peripheral annoyance around the biases this seems to create, there are always a few interesting terms.

This year's winner was "sodane〜 そだね〜" ("that's right〜" ), the kawaii (the culture of cuteness) shortened form of sōdesune そうですね ("I agree; that's right; that's so, isn't it; hmm"), one of my favorite Japanese expressions, popularized during the Pyeongchang Olympics broadcasts of the Japanese women's curling team.

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The worldly sport of spelling

Following on the victory of Karthik Nemmani in the Scripps National Spelling Bee — the 11th straight Indian-American to win the competition — the New York Times has an interview with Sam Rega, whose new documentary Breaking the Bee explores how kids of South Asian ancestry have come to dominate the Bee in recent years. I wrote about Breaking the Bee for The Atlantic last month — as I said there, it's a compelling film, and I hope it gets a distribution deal soon. (Currently it's on the film-festival circuit.) In the Times interview, Sam makes a point about the spellers' multilingual backgrounds that I didn't have room to discuss in my Atlantic piece.

Is there something about South Asian values or families that explains success in spelling?

To me, the key is how much these families believe in the idea of family. And how much spelling is a family sport. They believe in working together as a family unit. They want to create a bond between parent and child. Spellers look to their parents as role models and coaches. Their siblings often play assistant coach. Parents like to instill values like dedication, hard work, and how to handle yourself in defeat or success.

These families also tend to be multilingual, sometimes with moms and dads who speak different languages. Exposure to multiple languages can also play a role in spellers’ facility with spelling. Spelling is a worldly sport, it connects you to languages and places far away from you.

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Yet again on the mystery of the national spelling bee

This year's champion, Ananya Vinay, is a 12-year-old sixth-grader from Fresno, California.  The runner-up, Rohan Rajeev, is a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Edmond, Oklahoma.  One of the co-champions from last year, Nihar Janga of Austin, Texas, was 11 and the other, Jairam Hathwar, of Painted Post, N.Y., was 13.

Speaking of youthfulness, this year home-schooled Edith Fuller of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the youngest contestant ever to make it to the finals.

"At 5, Girl Becomes Youngest To Qualify For National Spelling Bee" (NPR, 3/8/17)

That was in March.  By the time of the national spelling bee, she had turned 6.  It's ironic that little Edith was knocked out on a technicality that was introduced to the national spelling bee for the first time this year.

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Harambe McHarambeface

Strange happenings in the Jinhua zoo, Zhejiang, China:

"Has a Chinese zoo called a gorilla Harambe McHarambeface? Claim that poll decided animal’s name sweeps the web" (Daily Mail, 9/13/16)

  • Confusion over the naming of a gorilla at a zoo after a 'huge public vote'
  • Newborn 'christened' at Jinhua zoo in China's central Zhejiang province
  • Total of 73,345 votes were cast for Harambe McHarambeface 
  • Name is reference to gorilla killed in US after boy fell into its enclosure

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Spelling bees in the 1940s

[This is a guest post by Frank Southworth.  Since Frank is a linguist who specializes on South Asia, it has particular resonance with our long running series of posts on Indian dominance in more recent spelling bees.]

In the spring of 1941, when I was in sixth grade, I was the spelling champion of Public School #30 in Buffalo, NY (which only went up to 6th grade), and I competed in the citywide Buffalo Spelling Bee. In those years the Buffalo contest was regularly won by girls from the Annunciation School, a parochial school built in 1928 and operated by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. It was closed in 1988. (I just learned these facts from Wikipedia.) The school was famous for its rote learning which, if nothing else, did produce good spellers.

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Pinyin literature contest

I wish to call your attention to the Li-ching Chang Memorial Pinyin Literature Contest.  The purpose of the contest is to commemorate the life and work of Li-ching Chang (October 5, 1936-June 20, 2010), who was an outstanding teacher of Mandarin at the University of Washington, the Oberlin center in Taiwan, Middlebury College Summer School, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College.

The contest will offer more than US$13,000 in prizes for works in the following categories:

  • novella
  • short story
  • essay
  • poem

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Once more on the mystery of the national spelling bee

Looks like this year's winners are again co-champions and of Indian (South Asian) origin. Guessing from their names, one of them has a Karnataka heritage and the other an Andhra background.

Quoting from "National spelling bee ends in a tie for third consecutive year" (USA Today, 5/27/16):

For the third year in a row, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has ended with two champions.

Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., were declared co-champions Thursday night after fighting to a draw during 39 rounds of competition.

“It was just insane,” Jairam* said as he and Nihar triumphantly hoisted the golden winner’s cup into the air.

“I’m just speechless,” Nihar said. “I’m only in the fifth grade.”

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*The younger brother of 2014 co-champion, Sriram Hathwar.

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