June 05, 2013

What's in a name? What's in a letter?

I found it rather delightful that the winning word in the national Spelling Bee this year was a word from Yiddish that refers to an everyday item (rather than, say, hydrophyte, elucubrate, staphylococci or luccedaneum -- all winning words in previous years). Arvind V. Mahankali, 13 years old, from Queens, NY, grinned when he heard the word: This time, he was not going to be sent home after misspelling a word of Germanic origin. He spelled the Yiddish word for dumpling "k-n-a-i-d-e-l" and took home the trophy and $30000 in cash.

Alas, there is disagreement on whether or not the spelling listed in the bee's reference dictionary is actually "correct." Webster spells the Yiddish word for dumpling "knaidel," but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Resarch spells it "kneydl". Who is right? (As far as the rules of the competition are concerned, there is no dispute: It is the spelling in the reference dictionary that counts.)

From The Times:
While most languages were formalized by national governments and their sanctioned language academies, Yiddish had no country and so relied on organizations like YIVO, which is the Yiddish acronym for Yiddish Scientific Institute and was based before World War II in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania. Experts like YIVO’s Max Weinreich and his son, Uriel, who compiled a Yiddish-English dictionary, set clear guidelines about how the language should be transliterated into English — though in that famously disputatious Jewish world those instructions were not always appreciated or obeyed.
For instance, rather than the “ch” in words like chutzpah and challah, the YIVO wordsmiths preferred “kh” because the “ch” could lead someone to a softer pronunciation, as in choice or chicken. YIVO uses the “kh” in words like khutspe (chutzpah), but most Yiddish speakers prefer the more popular variants.
“The argument is whether we make things comprehensible to the public or insist on the purity of the language,” said Anita Norich, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan [...]
For the purpose of the spelling bee, however, there is really no conflict: What counts is the spelling in Merriam-Webster. Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large for Merriam Webster used Google's n-gram viewer to show that Webster's spelling is in line with how the word is spelled in published English prose. (Alas, the graph doesn't tell us how many tokens of the word they actually collected and it may not exactly be the kind of word one would expect to occur most frequently in published genres.)

So, congratulations, Arvind! I hope you enjoyed your first matzo ball soup after your big win.

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