Some languages, like Spanish, are phonetic. Others like English and French are not. Persons with very little knowledge of Spanish, given a Spanish text, which they don’t understand a word of, could, nevertheless, read it aloud in a way that would be largely intelligible to a native Spanish speaker (except that the accent might be placed on the wrong parts of many words in the text). For French, this would not be so, due, for example to the large number of words in which the last letter is silent (e.g. toit, aux, quand, janvier) and, in some cases where the last syllable is not pronounced (e.g. assurent, veille, fesses). In English, the discrepancy between the pronunciation of words and their spelling is much more prevalent.
The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, is said to have joked that the word ‘fish’ could legitimately be spelled ‘ghoti’ by using the ‘gh’ sound as it is pronounced in ‘enough’, the ‘o’ sound as it is pronounced in ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ sound as it is pronounced in ‘action’. The true source of that statement was not in fact in Shaw, and the argument propounded has, moreover, been rebutted. In the Language Column of the New York Times, dated June 27, 2010, linguist Ben Zimmer discusses this and concludes “If presented with ghoti, most people would simply pronounce it as goaty… English isn’t entirely a free-for-all”.
The large number of irregular spellings in English, as well as the extensive vocabulary of the English language, (although very many words are rarely used), has given rise to an American tradition: the Spelling Bee. The Collins English Dictionary, Complete and Unabridged, defines this as a contest in which players are required to spell words according to orthographic conventions. For the origin of this term, access this link. Noah Webster (1758 – 1843) wrote the first English speller in 1783. It was originally entitled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1837 it had sold 15 million copies, and some 60 million by 1890—reaching the majority of young students in the nation's first century. For Webster’s role in the development of English in the USA, see the Wikipedia article, Noah Webster.
The National Spelling Bee has taken place annually in Washington D.C. since 1945. The participants range in age from 8 to 15 years, but 80% of them are between the ages of 12 and 14, and in some cases as young as eight. In each round, each participant is given a word, and he or she may request a limited amount of information about the word required to be spelled, e.g. the origin of the word, a definition, a sentence containing the word. If a participant misspells one word, he or she is eliminated from the competition.
The 2010 Bee took place earlier this month,. A disproportionate number of both the participants and the winners over the years have been of Asian origin. For the 273 participants in 2010, English was not the first language of 21 of them, and 102 spellers spoke languages other than English. The pronouncer, Dr. Jacques A. Bailly, is fluent in French and German, and teaches ancient Greek and Latin.
The 2010 winner was Anamika Veeramani. Her prize was $41,000.
In the final round, she correctly spelled stromuhr, a word of German origin, which means “An instrument for measuring the quantity of blood that flows per unit of time through a blood vessel.”
The winning words in recent competitions have included: pococurante; autochthonous; appoggiatura; ursprache; serrefine; guerdon; Laodicean.
The following videoclip shows 13-year old Sameer Mishra correctly spelling the word numnah, which is another word for numdah and means coarse felt, a horse’s saddle pad made from this or an embroidered rug made from this.
A detailed description of the 2010 competition is to be found at http://www.spellingbee.com/. You can try the test based on the 2009 words at http://www.spellingbee.com/sample-test
In a fascinating book, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, the author, James Maguire, follows the lives of the 2005 participants as they prepare to participate months ahead of the preliminary rounds, reading complete dictionaries and studying etymology.