Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

As bee season ramps up, and spellers begin to be tested on their linguistic prowess, it is good to dwell on the most important responsibility of a speller. Many spellers would half-jokingly say that the most important responsibility of a speller would be to spell the word right. That’s certainly a great responsibility…after all, this is what spelling bees are all about, right? Learn about words, ideally be able to use them in conversation or writing, and most importantly, be able to spell them when your turn at the microphone comes. But, as it turns out, this is not the speller’s most important responsibility.

The first and foremost responsibility of a speller is to communicate with the judges as clearly as possible.

Surprising? Maybe, maybe not. You might think it has something to do with the pronouncer. After all, the pronouncer gives you the word by which you survive to spell another round, or fall by the wayside. So you have to hear the word clearly, and that is tremendously important. But think about it. When you are up on stage, who decides your fate? Who holds the bell? Who can correct any misunderstanding before you begin to spell? And who, if you feel you are unjustly eliminated, has the power to reinstate you? The judges. So make sure they can understand you perfectly.

A personal story

To use an example from years ago, at the Colorado state bee in 1988, I received the word contrecoup shortly before winning. But I was unsure of the ending…did it contain an s or not? I asked if the word was singular or plural. The pronouncer told me that it was singular. It made me more certain of the ending…but not entirely. (Those silent letters at the end of French words can be so tricky, right?) I knew that if I gave any indication that I was done with the word before adding an s if I chose to, that could raise all sorts of drama. And bees are nervewracking enough. I didn’t want to wrangle with the judges probably any more than they wanted to entertain a potential protest from me.

I had to take the responsibility of a speller seriously. So here’s what I did. I decided that I would spell the word, but slow down toward the end, start raising my voice (as if I were asking a question), look up at the ceiling quizzically, and even close my eyes in exaggerated thought. This communicated to the judges – and everyone present – that I was still deliberating. I also did NOT say the word until I was absolutely certain that I was done. My deliberation took about ten seconds…seconds that were blissfully uninterrupted by the bell. And nor did the bell sound once I said contrecoup – because I chose not to add an errant s.

Onstage at Scripps

Here’s another example from years past…this time, of a failure to communicate clearly. In 1987, Stephanie Petit reigned as the Scripps winner – but not without a fright a few minutes prior. Stephanie received the word guilloche and spent her time deliberating over it. In her attempt, her wavering voice betrayed her uncertainty. The fifth letter that came out of her mouth was a distressing and unclear mixture of “l” and “o.” No bell rang – yet –  but the judges could not decide exactly what she had said. And for maybe five unending minutes, Stephanie – and the rest of the crowd – sat on tenterhooks while the judges deliberated. They played the tapes over and over again over the speakers so everyone could hear that nearly-swallowed “l/o” sound. Finally, after prolonged deliberation, the head judge nodded her head, much to Stephanie’s relief. And a few short words later, the trophy was hers.

A more recent example of troublesome communication between a speller and judges occurred at Scripps in 2019. When Max Greenspan of Scottsdale, Arizona, received the term mot juste in the second round, he spelled all but the final letter. Max then stood, unsure of whether to add the final letter. Even worse, he seemed uncertain why the judges were not reacting to him. It was almost as if he had forgotten about the much-repeated advice to say the word once done spelling. In times like these, a judge’s responsibility extends to reading body language clearly. Head judge Mary Brooks rang the bell in this uncertainty, eliminating Max. However, after Max filed a protest, Ms. Brooks announced that Max would be reinstated, and that she had rung the bell prematurely. However, had Max been able to communicate more clearly that he was still deliberating, this conundrum could have been avoided.

How to communicate clearly with the judges

  • Say the word clearly before spelling. This signals to the judges to start paying attention in earnest. It keeps them from surprises. It also allows the judges to hear (if they haven’t heard yet) whether or not you are pronouncing the word correctly; if not, this gives them a chance to correct you. If you mishear tenet as tenant, and don’t say the word ahead of time, the judges may rule that you had enough information to spell the word correctly, and may throw a potential protest out.
  • Say the word again after spelling. Again, this signals to the judges that you have officially and unquestionably finished. If you get the word squall and somehow indicate with your body language that you are finished after squal, even if you haven’t said the word, the judges may misinterpret this as indicating that you are done spelling, and may ring the bell. You might be able to successfully lodge a protest, but this really isn’t the best way to negotiate a bee. If a judge is in a foul mood for whatever reason – remember, they’re human too – they may choose to just throw out your protest. Remember: their decisions are final. (So important are these two points that the North-South Foundation actually denies credit during Phase II of their national competition if a speller does not pronounce the word both before and after spelling it.)
  • Look directly at the judges while you are spelling. The pronouncer is not in charge of your fate. The judges are. The more clearly they can see your lips move and evaluate your body language, the more able they will be to judge your spelling. Don’t make them guess what you are saying.
  • Spell clearly and slowly. You don’t have to spell words with a five second pause between each letter…in fact, that may be a good way to lose track of where you are in the word yourself! But spell at a reasonable, deliberate pace. Also, beware of letter combinations like “sc.” It’s a good idea to pronounce each of those letters completely separately, so they don’t get confused with “se.”
  • If you want to start over, say so. I’m a fan of taking control while on stage, and encourage spellers to just say, “I’m starting over,” rather than asking, “Can I start over?” But either way is fine. It is easy to misspell a Buddhist monk (lama) if you hesitate after the first letter then refuse to communicate that you’re going to start over. You may unwittingly spell a South American mammal (llama).

It is up to each speller to take this #1 responsibility of a speller seriously! So…since the judges control your fate onstage, communicate with them clearly, and make their jobs as easy as possible.

Photo Credit: Mark Bowen