Bees Overseas

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

In Bees Overseas, Michael Tsai notes that “Spelling bees are a particularly British and American phenomenon”:

The orthography of some Romance languages, like Spanish, is so regular that one can easily figure out the spelling of a word just by hearing the way it sounds. English, on the other hand, contains Latin, Greek, Germanic, and other roots, not to mention whole words borrowed from other languages. That’s why an American schoolchild might get stuck with tricky words like ursprache and appoggiatura.

In French-speaking nations, they test grammar. In China, they have dictionary contests:

Chinese kids join dictionary contests, where they look up words as fast as they can. Unlike English, you can’t completely decipher a Chinese character’s pronunciation just by looking at it, and characters can have many components. Thus there are several ways to find words in dictionaries. Students can look for the character’s radical, or semantic, root and search by the number of strokes in the character. If they know what the word sounds like, they can choose instead to look up the pinyin, or Romanized version, of the character. A third way involves a sort of Dewey Decimal System of words: By examining the strokes in the four “corners” of the character, expressing each corner as a number (a square is a six, for example), they can then use the resulting four-digit code to find a word in a special dictionary.

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