Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spelling Bee and Scrabble Champions

Today is the climax of the national spelling bee.  The field has been cut to fifty and the competition is heating up.  But what should we think of the winner?  If you win the Boston marathon or the Olympic 100 meter dash, you could rightly be called the world's fastest person.  If you win boxing's heavyweight belt or the mixed martial arts championship, you may lay claim to being the world's toughest person.  But what should we think of the champion speller? 

Surely, not the world's smartest.  The word smart is multifaceted and it seems odd that any of them would be well-measured by one's knowledge of spelling.  Not most well-read.  Now, there is clearly a correlation between the amount of reading one does and the strength of one's vocabulary.  Knowing the spellings of a wide range of words would be one way to assess one's vocabulary and thereby indirectly how well-read.  But these spellers prepare for this competition.  They train, not by reading widely, but by learning and drilling words and roots.

It's not entirely dissimilar from the case of Panupol Sujjayakorn, the non-English speaking competitive Scrabble champion of the world.  He is from Thailand and memorized legal strings of letters, but does not speak English.  He is the greatest living player of the game Scrabble, but it seems that part of the fun of the game is the gestalt switch, seeing really cool words pop out of a random array of letter tiles.  If those words are not part of your spoken language, some sense of the game seems to be lost.

So, we should celebrate the young person who wins the national spelling bee tonight, but, I wonder, for what?  What does this victory signify?