'Akeelah' and the appeal of the bee

While many of my fellow Americans were trying to decide whether to subject themselves to the wrenching strain of "United 93," the 9/11 film, I wimped out right away and joined friends to see "Akeelah and the Bee," about the quest of a girl in South Los Angeles to win the National Spelling Bee.

"Akeelah" follows on the heels of Myla Goldberg's 2000 novel "Bee Season," which put spelling bees back on the cultural map. It became a 2005 movie - after the 2002 documentary "Spellbound." The Tony-winning "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" musical is packing 'em in on Broadway. All this surely adds up to a trend, or at least a phenomenon. Who knew that spelling bees could be so hot?

A spelling bee takes a skill by definition connected with the written form of a language and turns it into a kind of audio performance - the oral recitation, on stage, before an audience, of letter names in their correct order. It would be a very different contest if it involved, say, writing the words on a board before the judges.

And the secret of the bee's appeal? In part, it's the appeal that any contest among human beings generates. Spelling bees pit vulnerable young people against the inexorable dictionary. But beyond that, I would suggest that, among all kinds of people, the love of language, including hard-to-spell "championship" words, is often deeper, broader, and more intense than we realize.

The 79th annual National Spelling Bee, now administered by the E.W. Scripps Co. of Cincinnati, is set for May 31 and June 1 in Washington.

"Akeelah" brought me right back to my own days as a competitive speller. My downfall in seventh grade was on "spaghetti," of all things, whose "h" I omitted. I'm sure I would have gotten it right on a written test. But as the letters were coming out of my mouth, I realized that a word from Italian, as this obviously was, would need an "h" to keep the "g" from softening before the "e." This wasn't the plain old hard "g" of "get" - as I realized just a millisecond too late. Ding! went the little bell that seems to be a constant of all spelling bees.

At this point some advocates of phonetic spelling might holler, "Why does an American seventh-grader have to know Italian to be able to spell English?"

A group called the Simplified Spelling Society has demonstrated at the National Spelling Bee with signs reading "Enuf is enuf" and "I'm thru with through." The society also maintains on its website listings of languages where orthographic reform was successfully carried out, including recent changes in German spelling, which include "Spagetti," without that troublesome "h."

So maybe I was just ahead of my time.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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