Yet again on the mystery of the national spelling bee

« previous post | next post »

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.

The bee shook things up in its 90th incarnation, adding a written, 24-question test that all finalists had to take Thursday night. The results would have been used as a tiebreaker in the event that the finalists were able to make their way through the entire list of prepared words for the finals — as competitors had in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

["For First Time In 4 Years, Solo Speller Claims National Bee Crown" (NPR, 6/1/17)]

According to SFGATE, Edith's score on the written test wasn't high enough, so the tiny spellebrity was eliminated, even though she had made it through Wednesday's onstage round by spelling "tapas" and "nyctinasty".

"Watch a 6-year-old spell 'nyctinasty' at the National Spelling Bee" (6/1/17)

The largest age group of contestants in the national competition this year was 13, and twenty spellers were 10 or younger.

The fifteen finalists were:

  • Rohan Sachdev – Cary, North Carolina
  • Erin Howard – Huntsville, Alabama
  • Mira Dedhia – Western Springs, Illinois
  • Shrinidhi Gopal – San Ramon, California
  • Tejas Muthusamy – Glen Allen, Virginia
  • Sreeniketh Vogoti – Saint Johns, Florida
  • Saketh Sundar – Elkridge, Maryland
  • Alice Liu – St. Louis, Missouri
  • Raksheet Kota – Katy, Texas
  • Naysa Modi – Monroe, Louisiana
  • Rohan Rajeev – Edmond, Oklahoma
  • Shourav Dasari – Spring, Texas
  • Alex Iyer – San Antonio, Texas
  • Ananya Vinay – Fresno, California
  • Shruthika Padhy – Cherry Hill, New Jersey


Judging from their names, thirteen out of the top fifteen contestants in this year's national spelling bee were of Indian origin.  Of the two non-Indians, one has a Chinese surname.

Domination of the spelling bees by contestants of Indian origin has been so decisively overwhelming for so many years that it is impossible to be aleatory in nature.  We have discussed this phenomenon repeatedly and from many different angles without coming to any consensus on how to account for it.  Yet surely there must be some causal explanation.  I suppose that most Language Log readers have their own pet theories to account for the extremely high success rates of contestants having Indian ancestry in the local, regional, and national spelling bees.  Rather than repeating what has already been said on this subject, I will simply list some previous posts for the sake of reference.

Spelling bees and related phenomena

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)

Spoken Sanskrit” (1/9/16)

"Once more on the mystery of the national spelling bee" (5/27/16)

"Spelling bees in the 1940s" (7/10/16)

See also:

"Why Indian-Americans Reign As Spelling Bee Champs" (NPR, 5/29/12)

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

No matter what their ethnicity, it is almost a miracle to me that young people can master the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, and derivation of such vast numbers of words.  Then again, there are prodigies in music, electronics, sports, and many other fields.  Still, there is something haunting about the daunting dominance of spelling bee contestants of Indian heritage….

[h.t. H. Krishnapriyan]


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    Edith Fuller was not "knocked out on a technicality that was introduced to the national spelling bee for the first time this year." A written test has been used to winnow down the field after the preliminary rounds since 2002. (I wrote about it for The Boston Globe in 2013 when the test began including questions about definitions, not just spelling.) The rule change this year had to do with a tiebreaker scenario, in which the score on another written test (just for the finalists) would break a tie between contestants after exhausting the list of "championship words." (Such a tiebreaker wasn't needed this year.)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Ben.

    I suppose that it will take a while for the journalists to catch up on the exact details surrounding the written questions

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

    An Indian friend of mine who is a Jat Sikh observed:


    What is your theory, Victor?

    Please note: No Jats !!!!


    I replied:


    Indians are very cerebral.

    They have perfected memorization techniques over thousands of years.

    Jats are too physical for this kind of thing. Spelling bees are all about brain work; next to no body work involved, though it does take mental stamina.


  4. Eidolon said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

    Given the young age of the participants, it is most probably due to a parental effect, derived from a, in this case, emigre community's special encouragement on spelling bees as a particularly meaningful childhood activity. An American mainstream analogy might be the similar focus many Anglo-American parents place on their children's physical sports performance, or that by East Asian Americans on their children's ability to play musical instruments. India's cultural history with Sanskrit and liturgical training may have played a role in establishing spelling bees as an especially "Indian" pursuit; but once established, success becomes self-perpetuating.

    In short, the statistics cited here seems pretty conclusive:

    "High education

    For example, in the 2013 All-National Honor Ensemble, 45% of the musicians in orchestra and 13% in the band were Asian-Americans, but just 2 and 1%, respectively, were Indian-American.

    In athletics and team sports, Indian-Americans actively participate in high school but are virtually absent at college level and in professional sports.

    No one of Indian origin (with a very minor Indo-Canadian exception) has ever played in any professional sports league: American football, baseball, basketball, or ice hockey.
    There is also no one in the lists of emerging talent, for example, the top 100 high school prospects in baseball."

    I imagine that, just as spelling bees are seen as a particularly "Indian American" activity, playing musical instruments and professional sports are seen as particularly not, and so children are funneled by the community into the former endeavor, but not into the latter. To this end, it might be viewed an instance of ethnic specialization at a very young age.

  5. Joshua K. said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 8:17 pm

    There is a national organization called the North South Foundation which conducts regional and national academic contests aimed at the Indian American community. Among the events they conduct are spelling bees, and many of the Scripps national spelling bee competitors are veterans of the NSF spelling bees.

    If there is any other ethnic group that has its own circuit of spelling bees modeled on the Scripps national spelling bee, I haven't heard about it.

  6. JPL said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 3:55 am

    Eidolon @6.5.17, 7:17pm:

    "No one of Indian origin … has ever played in any professional sports league …."

    It's really too bad that the USA does not participate in test cricket and that cricket is not played in America (in any organized fashion). It's a beautiful sport and fun to play. I wonder what would be required for cricket to catch on in America.

    Distance running in Kenya, sprinting in Jamaica: I know expert coaching has been a big factor in the development of these sporting cultures. What is the role of coaching expertise in the development of Indian spelling bee culture?

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 8:18 am

    I'm not quite sure what "Indian origin" is supposed to mean. Sim Bhullar, born in Toronto of parents who immigrated from India, played in three games for the Sacramento Kings in 2015.

  8. turang said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    Music provides an interesting example here. While it is true that the participation of children of Indian-American heritage is low in Western musical circles, compared to East Asians, it can be likely put down to the strong musical culture of Indians. Very substantial numbers seem to be involved in music and dance from India, ranging from Bollywood to South and North Indian classical music. There are some professional level musicians and dancers based in the U.S.

  9. Rube said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    @Ralph Hickock: Presumably that's the "very minor Indo-Canadian exception".

  10. Elijah Granet said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    Harpers recently published an article on this same subject:

  11. Bruce said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

    Actually, it's not India, but rather the South that is over-represented here. A huge fraction of the top 15 are from states that would be considered Southern. It's even more striking if you normalize by population. Is there something in the cultural heritage of the southern states that predisposes them to intellectual pursuits, or feats of memorization? I think this bears further investigation.


  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 3:35 pm


    Yes, this is something that we've noticed in previous years. I agree with you that it merits further investigation.

  13. Ray said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

    maybe off-topic and not even linguistic, but maybe related. in india there is the tradition of using the fingers/knuckles to count and calculate complex numerical operations. I'm not saying that's what's going on with these spelling bees, but maybe some kind of similar mapping is involved (consciously or unconsciously, as a discipline, even) in order to master the spelling of so many words… in any event, fascinating…

  14. B.Ma said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 12:04 am


    I don't know what it's like in US universities, but here in the UK practically every university student of Indian heritage joins one of the Indian societies, each of which hosts a huge annual musical and cultural event.

  15. liuyao said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

    The parallel with kids of East Asian descent excelling in classical musical instruments may be deeper than it seems. It may be totally unexpected given that the Chinese musical tradition is close to non-existence. (How Western classical music has, over the 20th century, attained a status of prestige and "class" in the East is an interesting question in and of itself.) On the other hand, as noted regularly on LL, the kind of "rote learning" in character-writing acquisition has a lot in common with playing instruments.

    Another area that "Asians" (in US lingo) are known to be good at is math. Here Indians may be a close second, in pre-college math competitions that is (At the professional level, though, white Americans are also very good). I recall in an interview an Indian-American mathematician has noted the Indian musical/recitative tradition having an influence on his interests in number theory.

RSS feed for comments on this post