English spelling is so difficult that we’ve created a national competition for it

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English spelling is so difficult that we’ve created a national competition for it

You may have heard of spelling bees, which are part of the fabric of American children’s educational experience. Did you know that spelling bees are thought to date back to the early 1800s? Spelling bees are competitions where contestants are asked to spell words that become increasingly complex with each round.

Sound dull? Not at all! The most prestigious English spelling bee of them all, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, takes place this week in the Washington area. We at English With Purpose are sad that we didn’t think to get our tickets to the finals ahead of time. This year, 284 children ages 8-14 will compete for the title of National Spelling Champion.

116 of this year’s spellers are bilingual. This is an advantage, for many of the words used in the competition are words that English has borrowed from other languages.

Competitors spend a lot of time studying roots, affixes and borrowed words. Sounds like a great strategy if you are trying to improve your own spelling.

In this article in Time Magazine, Merriam-Webster’s Editor-at-Large, Peter Sokolowski, explains why English is so well-suited to spelling competitions: “The reason we have spelling bees in English,” Sokolowski says, “is because it’s such a mongrel language. Given that our tongue is made up of words that come from Greek and Latin and Japanese and Native American roots, spelling is much more unpredictable than, say, French”—which Sokolowski sums up as “just bad Latin.”

You can watch the semifinals and finals on ESPN. Or take the Scripp’s word quiz here to test your own English spelling skills.

Read more. Why the word ‘bee‘ and not ‘competition’? It’s an old usage that describes a community gathering that results in a specific action. Best of luck to all of the competitors!

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