What happened to the spelling bee this year?

« previous post | next post »

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)

The article begins thus:

The upstart ex-spellers who launched an online spelling bee to fill the void left by the canceled Scripps National Spelling Bee had little trouble running an efficient, and sufficiently challenging, competition.

Replicating the drama of the ESPN-televised national finals wasn’t quite as easy.

Thursday night’s winner, Navneeth Murali, was no surprise. The 14-year-old eighth-grader from Edison, New Jersey, came in with the most extensive spelling resume of anyone in the bee. When the two other remaining spellers misspelled words back to back before his turn, victory in the closest thing to a national spelling bee in this pandemic-disrupted year was his for the taking. 

He didn’t back down.

Navneeth went through the motions of making sure he understood everything about the winning word, Karoshthi — an ancient, cursive script of Aramaic origin used in India and elsewhere in central Asia — before he started to spell. He plowed through it quickly and confidently, as he had all night.

Although the AP report goes on for many paragraphs, I'll stop quoting it here to talk about the word with which Navneeth won:  Karoshthi.  It is indeed a very rare word.  I doubt that even a tiny fraction of people in the world are aware of its existence.  For me, however, it is as familiar as Devanagari, Arabic, or Chinese, since I carried out archeological investigations for three decades beginning in the early 90s in the area of East Central Asia where it was in use around two thousand years ago.  If I were asked to spell "Karoshthi", the hardest part for me would be choosing which of the variant spellings to use:

The Kharosthi script, also spelled Kharoshthi or Kharoṣṭhī (Kharosthi: ) was an ancient Indian script used in Gandhara (now Pakistan and north-eastern Afghanistan) to write Gandhari Prakrit and Sanskrit. It was used in Central Asia as well. An abugida, it was introduced at least by the middle of the 3rd century BCE, possibly during the 4th century BCE, and remained in use until it died out in its homeland around the 3rd century CE.

It was also in use in Bactria, the Kushan Empire, Sogdia and along the Silk Road, where there is some evidence it may have survived until the 7th century in Khotan and Niya, both cities in Xinjiang.


It turns out that I'm teaching a course on the Silk Road this semester, and we've mentioned Karoshthi scores of times, looked at documents written in it, and discussed its history and use.  To find that it was used in this year's makeshift spelling bee is a real treat for my students and me.


Selected readings

[Thanks to H. Krishnapriyan]


  1. Alyssa said,

    October 21, 2020 @ 1:46 pm

    It's interesting that the "correct" spelling required by the bee does not match any of the three spelling variations offered by Wikipedia.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2020 @ 2:29 pm

    The "correct" spelling (and I strongly agree with the use of scare quotes here) is accepted by the OED, which offers :

    Kharoshti, n.
    Pronunciation: /kəˈrɒʃti/
    Forms: Also Kharoshthi, Kharosthi, Kharosti.

    but that really is not the point. Not being familiar with American spelling tests, are they really predicated on the belief that there exists exactly one valid spelling for every word, or are contestants allowed to answer with any of the potentially several spellings recognised as correct by one or more major dictionaries ?

  3. crturang said,

    October 21, 2020 @ 2:31 pm

    The "correct" spelling is probably correct because it already incorporates the aspirated k sound that the h's are supposed to suggest.

  4. Twill said,

    October 21, 2020 @ 7:01 pm

    @Philip Taylor Usually spelling bees have an official dictionary they're drawing from (in this case apparently Webster's), and if your variant for the arcane word they've randomly plucked out isn't in there, tough luck. That's about the only practical option for a serious competition, though. In an ideal world, we would have as many spelling bees as they do in Helsinki or Rome, but for now a sufficient number of people are apparently captivated by the idea of a small child slavishly memorizing tomes of haphazardly spelled words. I have no idea why there was ever a fuss about drilling two dead languages into children's heads by rote, frankly.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 3:50 am

    Twill — too remniscent of my primary school days for my liking. When I was ten or so, my class (of 44 — pupils, that is, not year of enrollment) had a 20-word spelling test every week. As an avid reader, spelling normally posed no problems for me, and when the teacher said /ˈprɪnᵗ sɪ pᵊl/, I confidently wrote "principle". It was marked wrong, because the teacher was looking for "principal". That was the only time in the entire year when I had to write out the entire word list 20 times during the following week as a punishment / "learning aid".

  6. Rodger C said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 7:44 am

    One of the years I was in The National Spelling Bee–I think1960–I was counted wrong on a word, and as my mother and I were out in the lobby heading for the elevator, there was a sudden commotion behind us and people calling for me. It turned out that the official list was in error.

  7. ktschwarz said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 3:36 pm

    You can see video highlights of the SpellPundit Online National Spelling Bee at SpellPundit's Facebook page. Navneeth Murali confidently and clearly spelled K-h-a-r-o-s-h-t-h-i, with three h's. Not Karoshthi. The AP reporter got it wrong. Yup, the Associated Press misspelled the winning word in a story about a spelling bee!

    The winning spelling can also be seen in the story at The Juggernaut, which sponsored the competition (subscription required), and in the announcement on twitter by @bethejuggernaut.

  8. ktschwarz said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

    @Twill, right, Merriam-Webster is the official dictionary of both Scripps and SpellPundit, and Kharoshthi is M-W's preferred spelling. I couldn't find it in any other general-purpose dictionary in any spelling; and I assume Philip Taylor meant to write that the Ka- spelling is *not* accepted by the OED! There are some books that use Ka- spellings, but those tend to be brief mentions; scholarly work on the script itself and the history around it uses Kha- spellings.

    Etymological note: as Professor Mair's class may have learned, the name of Kharoshthi comes from a Buddhist sutra, and it was probably a Sanskritization of something in some other language, according to Richard Salomon's Indian Epigraphy.

  9. chris said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 6:45 pm

    ISTM that there's a certain arbitrariness in choosing a "correct" spelling in the Latin alphabet for a word that originated in languages that use another script entirely — indeed it looks like Kharoshthi *is* another script entirely, and thus the most "correct" way to spell it would be in itself.

    But I suppose a spelling bee might not work at that competitive level if you confined yourself to words that are native to the Latin alphabet?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 10:22 pm

    ktschwarz — "I assume Philip Taylor meant to write that the Ka- spelling is *not* accepted by the OED!". Oddly enough, I didn't, but that was because I failed to pick up on the key fact that the spelling used in the original article was not among the spellings listed by Victor (citing Wikipedia) as being correct. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  11. Terpomo said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:14 pm

    I'm sorry, but if you have to have competitions to see if people can use your writing system correctly then it is a broken writing system. Well, not broken exactly, it works, but not well.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:36 pm

    Why be sorry? When we have music competitions and cooking contests, does that mean our music and our cooking are broken? I think not. It is, rather, a celebration of excellence.

  13. Terpomo said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 3:44 am

    Merely recording words on paper isn't an art form (though composing good text is), it's a quotidian skill. The system should not make it so difficult that few native speakers can do so without error.

  14. B.Ma said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 2:07 pm

    I'm not convinced that proper nouns belong in a spelling bee. Why not ask contestants to spell "Navneeth"?

RSS feed for comments on this post