Originally created 03/25/01

Language gives me dizzy spells



Knowing is half the battle.

- G.I. Joe

Once again, The Chronicle sponsored the regional spelling bee Saturday, and once again I watched in amazement as pupils younger than some of my neckties stood alone before a group and correctly spelled words I can only guess at.

I don't have to tell most of you that spelling is hard.

It's hard because we have to spell English - American English, really - which is not so a much a language as a collection of the world's sound bites - a communication pizza with the works.

America prides itself as the world's "melting pot," and its language reflects that recipe.

The word spell itself is a good example.

In English, it can mean different things.

You can cast a spell, from the Gothic root word spill, which meant a tale.

You can rest a spell, from the middle English spelien, which meant in place of.

Or you can find a word to spell, from the old French world espeller, which meant to explain.

Personally, I think spelling is difficult because it involves a special type of memory - one that features the ability to not only see a word in your head but also to see the specific order of its letters.

And spelling is quickly becoming an ancient art - sort of like long division.

It's no wonder that children who grew up with pocket calculators also favor the spell-checkers on their computers.

I began to even wonder whether spelling bees were strictly an American phenomenon.

Not entirely.

I e-mailed Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, who among other things is vice chairman for research of the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia.

He answered: "We indeed had spelling bees while I went to high school in India. These were inter-school championships where the students were selected on a competitive basis and then sent for the competition, usually sponsored by the Rotary Club. I am not sure about the other Asian countries, but I know India had them all over the place."

But are they as tough as American spelling bees, with all those -GHT's and I's-before-E's?

And spelling English is about as easy as understanding English.

Gentlemen of the jury, I present my case for American English - the language of exceptions. Here are the most quoted examples:

A boxing ring is actually square.

Eggplants have no egg.

Hamburgers have no ham and pineapples have neither apple or pine.

Quicksand works slowly.

Teachers have taught, but preachers haven't praught.

The plural of tooth is teeth, but the plural of booth isn't beeth.

A vegetarian eats vegetables and a humanitarian eats ... well, carefully.

In the end, can anyone figure out English completely?

I say fat chance.

Or slim chance.

In English, they mean the same thing.

Reach Bill Kirby at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 107.