A week ago, I had the great pleasure of being a judge at The Telegram Spelling Bee.
St. Bonaventure’s College student Steven Coffin spells a word at the 2014 The Telegram Spelling Bee at Holy Heart of Mary auditorium last Saturday. — File photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Fifty-nine students in Grades 4-8, the pride and champions of their schools, turned out on a blustery, winter’s day in St. John’s to compete and demonstrate their mastery of spelling.
For someone who has always loved words and their origins, it was wonderful to see so many children caught in that same magic spell. Nervous, excited and hopeful, one by one they stepped up to the microphone to face the pronouncer’s challenge.
In her debut novel “The Word Exchange,” Alena Graedon posits a bleak futuristic world where technology has become a linguistic and mental crutch.
Print is dead and words have become commodities, bought and downloaded onto personal devices when the right word or definition cannot be summoned by the brain when needed. (Consider how your spellchecker or smartphone auto-correct tries to put words in your mouth and see how insidious our reliance on technology can be.)
In Graedon’s book, people’s vocabularies have become depleted by the reliance on machines, and dictionaries have become data streams prized by multinationals — they are in jeopardy of being no longer freely available in the public domain.
Worse still, a mysterious word flu is circulating that causes sufferers’ speech to become garbled and, in extreme cases, silenced forever.
It is a chilling thought, but in the midst of this linguistic armageddon, a secret society of individuals devoted to words is working to safeguard the language, combat the virus and encourage a renaissance of reading, writing and conversation.
And, in a way, that’s what encouraging spelling does — it nurtures a love of the language and all its peculiarities, particularly the often colourful and sometimes twisted paths words took to reach us here in modern times.
A child who learns to love dictionaries will never be bored. It’s where you learn all sorts of fascinating things, like the fact that the word “squadron” takes its name from the place where soldiers stood in formation — in 16th-century Italy it was the “squadrone,” from “squadra,” or square.
Or that the word “gunnysack” is essentially a redundancy, since the word “gunny” comes from the Sanskrit word “goni,” which means sack.
Or that “judge” is a splendidly apt word that comes to us from Middle English via Old French via Latin — the combination of “jus” (law) and “dicere” (to say).
In an era where less emphasis seems to be placed on precision in written communication — despite the proliferation of “text” and “texting” — it is reassuring to know that many children are still finding wonderment in language and the power of words, and that as they grow and mature, so too will their vocabularies, to enrich and enhance their experience in the world.
Watching the children step forward on the stage at last week’s Bee, perhaps what was even more touching than their youthful enthusiasm for the language was the innocence revealed in the words they could not spell, or discern the meaning of; life lessons they have yet to learn.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor.