Once more on the mystery of the national spelling bee

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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.”


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

Here are some of the words that came up in the final rounds:

Feldenkrais — a trademark that refers to a system of aided body movements

gesellschaft — a type of social relationship

drahthaar — a dog breed (German wirehaired pointer)

mischsprache — mixed language

Earlier rounds included words like these:

esquisse — a first, usually rough sketch

Wehrmacht — the unified forces of Nazi Germany

myoclonus — an irregular, involuntary muscle contraction

bailliage — the authority of a medieval officer

kakiemon — a style of Japanese decorated porcelain

vasopressin — a neurohypophysial hormone that increases blood pressure

Notice a pattern?  It seems as though in these advanced spelling bees they very quickly run out of words from the regular English lexicon that can stump these young pinyin (I recommend that they put that on next year's list) wizards and have to move on foreign terms, arcane and obsolete words, specialized technical vocabulary, trademarks, and so forth.

Here are a couple more articles on this year's national championship competition:

"Two champions in the 2016 National Spelling Bee" (CNN, 5/27/16)

"National spelling bee crowns co-champs for third straight year" (ESPN, 5/27/16)

Earlier Language Log posts on spelling bees include the following:

"Spelling bee champs" (6/1/14)

"Spelling bees and character amnesia" (8/7/13)

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia" (9/25/13)

"Of toads, modernization, and simplified characters" (8/16/13)

"Brain imaging and spelling champions" (8/7/15)

"Il ne parle pas français" (7/23/15)

The following post may be relevant (one of the comments explicitly mentions spelling bees):

"Spoken Sanskrit" (1/9/16)

See also:

"Why Chinese Kids Are Terrible At Spelling Bees:  Globalization brings texting and spelling bees to China, with unfortunate results" (Popular Science, 8/13/13)

I think every rational person would agree that the overwhelming dominance of individuals of Indian (South Asian) descent in the spelling bees, year after year, cannot be due to chance, coincidence, or accident.  There must be some causal explanation.  What is it?

Is there an inverse relationship with the overall dismal record of Indians in muscular athletics?

[h.t. H. Krishnapriyan]


  1. S Frankel said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    Slate has an article on this: there's an Indian (or South Asian) minor-league circuit:


  2. Stan Carey said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Al Jazeera looked into this too: 'Why Indian-Americans dominate spelling bees'.

  3. Y said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    English-language Scrabble championships were for a long time dominated by Thais, some of whom did not know English well otherwise.

  4. Vance Maverick said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    The last query in the post is not very sporting — not, if you will, cricket.

  5. Rebecca said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

    I worked for someone researching this very topic. Keep an eye out for her upcoming cook "Spellebrity: Inside the Selfie Generation’s World of Competitive Spelling"

  6. john burke said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    It's true that the last rounds are often heavy with words from outside the regular English lexicon. One year recently the winner successfully spelled "appoggiatura," a term known only (I would guess) to musicians–and which I suspect even a lot of musicians might be uncertain how to spell.

  7. PS said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

    On a side note, it is sad to see that even the venerable Language Log seems to have been affected by the profoundly misguided nitpicking going on in the school education boards of South Western Central North America (also sometimes known as California).

  8. Stephen Hart said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    I worked for someone researching this very topic. Keep an eye out for her upcoming cook "Spellebrity: Inside the Selfie Generation’s World of Competitive Spelling"

    Seriously? She's selling a "cook"?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 8:35 pm


    Where and how did Language Log show itself to be so affected? I don't know what you're talking about.

  10. PS said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Perhaps I might have read a bit more than what you intended in the repeated parenthetical use of "South Asian" to explain "Indian" in your post and then in S Frankel's comment. What I was referring to was the recent bizarre controversy about whether Indian history should be referred to as South Asian history or Indian History that played out in in California school boards: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html

  11. Jamie said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 2:23 am

    But not everyone from South Asia is Indian.

  12. David Morris said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 6:58 am

    In my previous life as a music teacher I taught the terms appoggiatura and acciaccatura, also known as a grace note. I jokingly said to one student, 'Can you spell "acciaccatura"?' and she said, 'No, but I can spell "grace note!'!

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 7:26 am


    Thank you for clarifying what you meant. You completely misunderstood what I intended by writing "Indian (South Asian)". What you thought (the California school curriculum controversy) was actually far, far from my mind. What Jamie said is the main reason I wrote what I did.

  14. JP said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 8:25 am

    For "Mischsprache," the Scripps Bee Pronouncer's definitinon sentence was a bit less than clarifying — it was something about a student excited to get to his Linguistics professor's officer hours to ask whether there is really such a thing as a Mischsprache… :-)

  15. Levantine said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 9:11 am

    I understood the parenthetical 'South Asian' to be confirming that the people in question weren't of Native American background. But if the point was to clarify what part of South Asia their ancestors came from, wouldn't the logical order be 'South Asian (Indian)'?

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 9:18 am


    You're probably right about that.

    BTW, I recall from our earlier debates on this topic that you had some strong opinions about how / why the South Asian (Indian) contestants dominated. Have your views on this matter shifted somewhat? Or do you still hold to the same positions you voiced before?

  17. Levantine said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    Professor Mair, my opinion remains much the same. Clearly you're right that there is a pattern that cannot be accidental and is in some way related to the shared cultural background of these children. Is there some kind of collective endeavour by these kids' parents to promote this particular skill? Absolutely. Is this endeavour in any way inflected by the educational formation of the parents themselves, many of whom belonged to a school system that emphasised rote learning? Very probably. But is there a demonstrable link between this kind of learning and various ancient South Asian traditions that also emphasise memorisation? This is where you and I part ways. You're far more open to such a link, whereas I find the idea problematic, particularly since the culture of rote learning that South Asian parents may have brought with them to the States is common to much of the world's education systems.

    As I stated before, I am willing to have my doubts challenged, but I'm not going to be convinced without some proof that the same kids who excel in spelling are the same ones exposed to the kinds of oral and musical traditions that you adduced in our last discussion on the matter. It shouldn't be difficult to find out by interviewing the children and their families, and perhaps the forthcoming book mentioned above will answer things for the both of us.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 9:54 am


    Thanks for your judicious reply.

    I too am looking forward to that book, and hope that someone will call it to my attention the instant it becomes available.

  19. Levantine said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 10:13 am

    Professor Mair, thanks to you also. And ditto regarding the book!

  20. PS said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    I believe the South Indian tradition being referred to be Levantine and Prof. Mair as having possible relations to the Spelling be is the avadhana?

    But my understanding is avadhana is an enormously different beast. It requires a very good short term memory no doubt, as well as extensive familiarity with the grammar, tradition and vocabulary of the language(s) in which the avadhana is being credited, but at its core it is a creative exercise, and the avadhana performer's main task is to compose short poems whose subjects and metrical constraints are provided to him/her on the fly.

  21. turang said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    Avadhana would be just a small part of the oral tradition (not limited to the Southern part of India) in which works were not merely memorized by "rote" in detail, but were starting points for further instruction and exploration. For example, Panini's sutras were memorized as mnemonics, but a recitation of a sutra could remind the reciter of a lot of associated commentary. There is likely to be a few degrees of separation between the traditional scholars and spelling bee contestants, though.

  22. Piyush said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

    For those wondering what an avadhana looks like, here is a description and a video of one (the video is at the bottom of the article): https://shreevatsa.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/avadhana/

    This particular one is in Sanskrit and Kannada, and features R. Ganesh, a researcher in Bangalore who moonlights as an avadhani and seems to have become quite a rockstar in that circuit.

    The video begins with a rather long invocation, which sounds to me like Vedic Sanskrit. I can only understand properly the last two lines which are from a famous Upanishadic verse that is quite popular material for mottos of schools and Universities. The invocation is then followed by an "a capella" Carnatic vocal performance, the avadhana itself begins around 52 minutes into the video.

  23. Ford Prefect said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    Much more interesting to me than the ethnic extraction of the winners is the normalization of putting all these foreign words in an ostensibly English language spelling bee. "Gesellschaft" is just not used in English enough to count as having been adopted into the language. Is there some principled bar for deciding what's an English word? If so, that bar appears to be set ridiculously low.

    Another head-scratcher for me has always been the fact that diacritical marks used in rendering these foreign words seem not to be counted as part of the correct spelling, which they most certainly are. Too awkward to say "umlaut" or "accent" aloud?

    And to conclude my gripes, especially in the age of computerized spell-checking, why are we wasting kids' time on this crap? Teach them to code, for God's sake, or play the zither, or speak German. They've certainly got a head start on that last one with their spelling bee words. :)

  24. VeeLow said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 10:38 pm

    Here's a 2015 essay from a former competitor, now a college student, that provides a quite persuasive analysis of the phenomenon:


  25. Graeme said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 7:10 am

    Ford Prefect. To your last comment I'd say to this outsider these 'bees' seem like the linguistic equivalent of reciting pi to a thousand places.

    Is it primarily a US phenomenon? In Australia we seem to teach spelling tolerably well without taking competition beyond classroom tests. I'd be more impressed if the entrants had to define the words or use them in a sentence. Is such comprehension ever part of such bees?

  26. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 11:30 pm

    This article — based on research by scholars at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California-Santa Cruz — sheds some credible light on why Indian youth excel in certain fields (such as the spelling bees and engineering), but not in others (such as sports and music):

    "Why do Indian-Americans win spelling bee contests?" (BBC, 5/30/16)


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