Spelling bees in other languages?

I learned a smattering of Italian a few years ago, and that language is notably different than English because of the regularity of pronunciation. There are rigid pronunciation rules, and I am unaware of any exceptions. (For example, there are no long vs. short vowels; each vowel has only one pronunciation.) You don’t have similarly spelled words that sound different, like “through” and “though” and “bough” and “enough”.

It seems to me that there would be no point in having an Italian spelling bee. Once you know how to pronounce it, there’s not a lot of choice left for how to spell it. I have never checked an Italian dictionary (just Italian/English) but it also seems to me that you don’t need a pronunciation key, as in English. The accent is nearly always on the penultimate syllable, and when it’s not there is usually an accent mark to note it.

I supposed other languages might be similar.

Do languages other than English have spelling bees?

Read Beppe Severgnini’s hilarious Ciao, America! about his time living in the States. He had several paragraphs in there about watching a school spelling bee, and being amazed at how simple the words were. He may have been right that any Italian kid of the same age could spell much more difficult words than the best American ones, but you may have your finger on why.

Some do and some don’t.

Of the languages I’m acquainted with, English spelling is probably the most wild and woolly, and Spanish the most regular and phonetic. Italian is also pretty straightforward as you pointed out.

A medium difficulty example would be French spelling. Although fairly rule-based and consistent it is frequently not phonetically determined.

(Je) marche
(ils) marchent
(une) marche
(deux) marches

are all pronounced the same, so the grammatical context determines the correct spelling. French kids are thus subjected to years of “dictées” - teacher reads out a text - kids write it down, and hand it in to be graded…

Is that true throughout Italy? I was under the impression that the Italian spoken in, say, Naples or Milan sounds considerably different from what’s heard in Tuscany. (And I have been told that the dialects spoken in places like Sardinia or Sicily are essentially separate languages.)

Perhaps an Italian spelling bee would be more of a challenge for some Italian children than for others?

I was an FOAF of one of the makers of “Spellbound” and I asked him this very question.

He said that spelling bees are virtually unknown outside of English-speaking countries. And they are fairly rare outside of the U.S. at that.

I was told by an Italian-American coworker that there is no word for “to spell” in Italian because the language is so phonetic. No idea if that’s correct.

A spelling bee in China ought to be a snap, once you learn the 4,000 characters. The words are pronounced just like they look.:smiley:

We used to have them every year at my primary school here in Sydney. They also raised funds for the school library. You’d ask your family and neighbours to sponsor you so many cents per word for each word that you got correct.

A few centuries ago, spelling bees would have been unknown in English, too, for a different reason. Spelling had not been standardized, and authors simply spelled words as they saw fit, sometimes using different spellings of the same word within one written work. Until the arrival and acceptance of references like Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary, there was simply no authority to appeal to for the “correct” spelling, soe whatevyre wakked orthograffie a partikular riter tuk into hiz hed too yuze cud notte bee condemmed as “rawnge”.

Are there modern day countries in which this situation exists?

BTW, it is sometimes claimed that Tibetan, which is written using an alphabet borrowed from Sanskrit, is even worse than English for being non-phonetic.

In the US, they have a number of Spanish spelling bees (yeah, I know, it’s just a google search) at elementary schools, primarily in areas with large Spanish-speaking populations. I’ve seen Spanish spelling bees advertised on the marquees of local junior highs for the past few years, actually.

I wonder how many rounds they have to go before students finally start tripping up though, as Spanish spelling is quite standard and phonetic compared to English.

I’d say a French Dictée is one of the hardest tasks known to mankind. It’s a frigging difficult language to spell correctly. People who win la Dictée des Ameriques are frequently recognized while walking on the street years later.

I think French dictées are worthy of mention in that, like spelling bees, there are large scale competitive dictées. Unlike spelling bees, however (I think), competitive dictées are also for adults. The most famous of these is the Dicos d’Or (commonly called the Dictée Pivot). It’s devilishly hard, filled with obscure vocabulary and easy to miss puns. Sometimes no-one gets it all right. Here’s an exerpt from one such dictée:

Note that punctuation counts, which can be a real killer.

We do *dictées * at the Alliance Française, and I find them quite difficult. My current teacher gave us an example of some famous lines (by Hugo?) that sound the same and would be extremely hard to distinguish in a dictée:

Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,
Galamment de l’arène à la Tour Magne, à Nîmes.

Gall, the queen’s lover, went - a magnanimous gesture - galantly from the arena to the Tour Magne, at Nîmes.

What no one has pointed out is that the difference between French dictees and English spelling bees is that in French one is given an entire passage to write down, while in English one is given single words.

In French the key issue is that there are often many words with the same pronunciation but which are spelled differently depending on the context, both in terms of meaning and grammar, as Asteroide mentioned. So giving bare words to spell makes no sense.


Spellbound was a modest hit in Britain, and has even spawned a one-off TV game show. Riveting television. But other than that, spelling contests are not part of our culture. Why “bees”, anyway? Where do bees come into it?

Good point though I’m not exactly sure how to relate it back to the OP. I was once unable to communicate with someone who spoke Neopolitan but not standard Italian, and I understand Sicilian is also quite different.

Good point though I’m not exactly sure how to relate it back to the OP. I was once unable to communicate with someone who spoke Neopolitan but not standard Italian, and I understand Sicilian is also quite different.

I guess it would be like asking a Californian to spell “fugeddaboutit” or a New Yorker to spell “liketubulardude”.

It’s “bee” in the sense of people getting together and working, like a quilting bee.

I don’t know if that is known in Britain however.

I don’t know of spelling-bee-type contests in Japan, but there is a written test held every four months for kanji. The 10 levels range from about 3rd-grade level (400 characters) to advanced knowledge of obscure characters (over 6000) with lots of 3- or 4-kanji compounds.

However, the spelling “bee” may not refer to the industrious insect. According to this page, the ultimate origin of the word (as used in the “community gathering” context) may be the Middle English bene, which means “favor”, and was eventually transformed into the dialectal [i[been*, “voluntary help given by neighbors”.

Since the letters k and w are not intrinsic to Spanish, and thus appear in only a few of that language’s (more exotic) words, a spelling bee of the type lel mentions may feature such potential stumpers as kinescopio (which means “kinescope” and would more “naturally” be spelled quinescopio) and wigwam (which would probably become juïguam if it were used more frequently by speakers of the language).