Saturday, June 04, 2011

Simples!

It’s the time of year again when they sort the proverbial sheep from the goats at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Though, if you watch video footage, courtesy of the Telegraph, you’d be hard pressed to find a single sheep, so prodigious are the contestants' skills.
Last year I reported that Anamika Veeramani, having tripped up the previous year (2009) with the German word ‘fackeltanz’, won with another German word ‘stromuhr’. [If you want to know what it means, you’ll have to read last year’s blog posting!] She’d obviously worked hard over the year on her German vocabulary lists!
Two years ago, the word which defeated all but a certain Kavya from Kansas was 'laodicean', meaning 'lukewarm, neither hot nor cold'.
This year it was the turn of Sukanya Roy, a Bengali-speaking fourteen-year-old, from Pennsylvania. She took the $40,000 prize by spelling correctly 'cymotrichous'. Pretty awesome, eh?
Well, maybe not quite as awesome as you’d think. She, like the other candidates, was allowed to ask the derivation of the word and to check that her pronunciation was correct when she repeated the word back to the examiner. Now I’m not saying that everyone is completely au fait (geddit?) with Greek, and ancient Greek at that, but if you separate the word into its syllables - cy mo tri chous - and you know that the way we spell the sound /k/ in words derived from Greek is very often ch (mechanic, choir, chemist), you’ve only the spelling choice between the letter s or the letter c to spell the first sound ‘s’. And, of course c is a common spelling alternative for the sound 's' (city, cylinder, cell, cymbal). 
I won’t say ‘simples!’ in a silly foreign voice, but it isn’t impossible.

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