Wednesday, 22 May 2024

A spell-off that wasn’t, and a gantlet of schwas: Takeaways from the spelling bee.

After 14 rounds of words like “probouleutic” and “zwitterion” and “schistorrhachis,” Dev Shah, an eighth grader from Florida, reached the apotheosis of his craft, correctly spelling “psammophile” to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night.

He denied the spelling community another thrilling spell-off, outlasted the dominant Texans and didn’t let the schwa make him schweat.

If you weren’t able to watch the finals on Thursday night, here are a few takeaways.

The schwa is a stone-cold killer

The schwa — the “uh”-like sound that can be represented by any vowel in the English alphabet, also known as the bane of competitive spellers’ existence — knocked out several finalists, as it routinely does.

It eliminated Pranav Anandh in the ninth round, when he substituted an “i” for the first “e” in “querken,” which means “to cause to gasp.”

Two rounds later, it defeated Arth Dalsania, who swapped in an “a” for the “u” in “katuka,” a venomous snake also known as Russell’s viper. In the 12th round, the insidious schwa claimed two victims: Vikrant Chintanaboina (“pataca,” which he misspelled as “petaca”) and Aryan Khedkar (“pharetrone,” which he misspelled as “pharotrone”).

It’s hard to blame the contestants, considering that a schwa can be any of six letters — or none. It’s the “a” in balloon, the “e” in item, the “i” in family, the “o” in lemon, the “u" in support, the “y” in analysis and the, umm, nothing before the “m” in rhythm.

The spell-off did not materialize

Unlike last year, when the champion was determined by a first-ever spell-off after exhausting the regular word list after 18 rounds, the bee did not need such extraordinary measures this time.

By the 14th round, the field had dwindled to two competitors: Dev and Charlotte Walsh. Dev walked up to the microphone, heard the word “bathypitotmeter” — “an instrument designed to record the current velocity and water temperature at indicated depths below the surface of a sea or lake,” Merriam-Webster says — and spelled it as if he were reciting his own name.

Walsh, meantime, was stumped on “daviely,” which she spelled “daevilick.”

All Dev needed to do then was spell one more word in Round 15, and he did.

The bee proved to be bigger than Texas

Contestants from Texas usually stack the finals, and they often win the title: In fact, four of the last seven bees featured champions from the Lone Star State.

But of the 21 competitors from Texas in this year’s bee — more than from any other state — only one reached the finals: Tarini Nandakumar, who was knocked out in the 10th round on a vocabulary question.

In all, the 11 finalists represented a vast swath of the United States, hailing from Utah to Pennsylvania, Nebraska to Virginia. Four were from California, with three sponsored by the same rotary club in San Ramon.

The lone Floridian in the finals, Dev, from Largo, outside St. Petersburg, gave the state its first winner since 1999.

Maggie Astor is a reporter covering live news and U.S. politics. She has also reported on climate, the coronavirus and disinformation. @MaggieAstor

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