Thursday, July 31, 2014

A viewer's guide to the National Spelling Bee

Confetti falls over Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York after the finals of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee May 30, 2013 at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
This week, one of the most brutal competitions known to man begins. It's time for the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Dreams will be broken, kids will be crushed, and when these kids strike out, the words that tripped them up will be burned into their brains for the rest of their lives. When the dust settles, one speller out of 281 will rise and be crowned the best-spelling kid in the nation. From the favorites, to the underdogs, to some of the Bee's most notable moments, here's your guide to this year's Bee.

What you're not seeing on television

The kids you're going to see on Wednesday and Thursday aren't the only kids in the Bee. Many of the Bee's 281 spellers, who have already accomplished a lot in beating out the smart kids in their schools and districts, are cut and culled in what's known as the "preliminaries," which actually begin today.

The "preliminaries" consist of a 45-minute computer test that features 24 multiple-choice vocabulary questions (12 of which that they're scored on) and a twenty four-word spelling test (12 of which they're scored on). After that there are two unique multiple-choice vocabulary questions. Each speller gets one question which no one else in the preliminaries faces. If they get it wrong, they're eliminated.

If they get it right, they then have to hope the scores they achieved on the rest of the test were high enough to get them through to the semifinals where another, similar round of computer testing occurs as well as two more round of unique vocabulary tests. They then have to wait again and hope their scores are high enough for the Championship finals (which air in primetime on ESPN).

What spellers are asking

After spellers get through that gauntlet of tests and waiting, they then move onto to the glory that is the Championship Finals — an oral spell-off where, by the luck of the draw, spellers can get a cupcake or a word that might send them to their doom.

This, of course, is what we'll see on Thursday night's broadcast. Like any sport, the actual action — in this case, the spelling — is actually just a small portion of the broadcast. The rest of the time is largely taken up by spellers asking for clues.

Spellers are allowed to ask for: 1) alternate pronunciations, 2) a definition 3) a part of speech 4) language of origin 5) the word to be used in a sentence 6) the word to be pronounced again. They're also allowed to ask if the root word is in the dictionary, so long as they can pronounce that root word correctly, define it, and identify its language of origin.

The answers provide valuable hints, allowing contestants to, for example, rule out homonyms, identify potential spelling patterns based on the language or origin, or use the definition to guess potential roots and glean likely spellings from there.

Spellers have two minutes, starting when the pronouncer finishes saying the word, to ask any or all of these questions, and spell out the correct word.

How the words are chosen

The words all come from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. That's the final authority. Figuring out whether Schizaffin is tougher than Isagoge is up to a panel of Bee officials who rate each word on a scale of one to five during organizational meetings, NPR reported in 2005.

But difficulty is, of course, relative. Someone who loves Latin is going to prefer different words than a speller who studies French. Here is a list of misspelled words from the 2013 Bee, and here's a list of the winning words dating all the way back to 1925.

How spellers are eliminated

Obviously, spelling. Any misspelling will earn that dreaded ding from the judges. And spellers will need to be on their game. The excuse of not hearing the word correctly doesn't cut it at the Bee. "It is sometimes impossible to detect a misunderstanding until a spelling error has been made, and the judges are not responsible for the speller’s misunderstanding," the rule book states.

If you dig deeper into the rules, spellers can also be eliminated for "unsportsmanlike conduct" or if they fail to approach the microphone. But perhaps the most pertinent rule, and one that comes up more than unsportsmanlike conduct or muttering things into a microphone, is that once spellers start a word, they can't change the sequence of the letters they spelled.

What we learned from Ashkay Buddiga in 2004 was that you cannot be eliminated for fainting during the Bee:

Nor will you get eliminated for doing a Napoleon Dynamite impersonation:

If you want a deep-cut or like musicals, the rules were perfect encapsulated by the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee:

Who to keep your eye on:

The year's competition will be intense. There's a mix of returning vets, legacies, and even an eight-year-old which will make for some good television. Here are our favorites:

The Katniss: Vanya Shivashankar is perhaps the crowd favorite to take the Bee home this year. She comes from a winning bloodline of spellers — her older sister, Kavya, was the 2009 champion — and stormed to fifth place last year after competing in 2010 and 2012.  She is an animal lover but has a special affinity for dogs and pandas.

The Baby: Hussain A. Godhrawala is eight. Godhrawala, a native of South Carolina, is the youngest speller in the competition. He is basically a zygote. He can probably spell better than you. He is also a Boy Scout and likes dinosaurs.

The Favorite: Sriram Hathwar, along with Shivashankar, is another one of the favorites. He placed sixth in 2011, and tied for third in 2013. He plays the oboe and the piano when he's not playing badminton, tennis, basketball or ice skating. "Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, France and South Africa on his travel bucket list," his bio states. Hathwar is the competition's sole five-year-returner.

The Dark Horse: Katharine Wang, a.k.a. Speller 147, might be someone to keep an eye on. The seventh-grader competed in 2012 and 2013, where she tied for 33rd place. The thing about Katharine is that spelling isn't even her best skill. She says her best subject is math and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. On top of that, she speaks English, Chinese, German, conversational French, and is learning Spanish.

The Machine: Joseph Cusi Delamerced has a routine. He eats a "hearty meal of bacon, eggs and rice" before every Bee. That's something to aspire to. When he isn't fundraising for victims of Typhoon Haiyan (his family is from the Philippines), he is taking home gold medals in the National Etymology Exam and competes in the National Junior Classical League Latin Convention. Cusi placed 12th at the 2013 Bee.

The Dreamer: If you ask most kids who (living or dead) they want to meet, the answer usually isn't Aristotle. For 14-year-old Katie M. Danis from Gastonia, North Carolina, Aristotle is her man. I would've said Beyonce. This is why I'm not a spelling bee champion.

How do I watch the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee?

The finals are on ESPN on Thursday night at 8 p.m. EDT/7 Central.

The semifinals will be shown on ESPN2 on Thursday morning at 10 a.m. EDT

The preliminaries will be shown on ESPN3 on Wednesday at 8 a.m. EDT and 1:15 p.m. EDT.

Another way to keep up with the Bee is through social media. You can find their Instagram feed here.

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