Controversy Hits National Spelling Bee

Sunday, June 02, 2013
Knaidlach (photo: Shiksa in the Kitchen)

Did the National Spelling Bee misspell the winning word in last week's final, won by 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali of Queens, New York? Although some language experts argue that his spelling of “knaidel” (an Ashkenazi Jewish dumpling) was incorrect, Spelling Bee officials stand by their version, which is based on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.


The preferred spelling, according to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a prominent center for the study of the Yiddish language and of Jewish culture generally, is “kneydl,” yet this usage is actually less common than “knaidel.” The reasons for the confusion are twofold.


The Yiddish language, which developed starting in the 10th Century among Central European Jews as a fusion of several German dialects with copious amounts of Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic vocabulary mixed in, is written not in the Latin alphabet but using Hebrew letters. Thus in Yiddish, knaidel looks like this: קנאַידעל.


Transliteration—the systematic substitution of one alphabet's letters for another's—is a notoriously uncertain practice because the sounds used in different languages, especially languages from different language families, often differ substantially. There are consonant sounds in Hebrew and Yiddish—the initial sound in the Yiddish word “chutzpah,” for example—that do not exist in English and most other Indo-European languages. Such sounds can only be approximated, and deciding what letter to use is a common source of controversy. The preferred YIVO transliteration of chutzpah is “khutspe,” which rarely appears in print.


The YIVO Institute's status as a private organization has also limited its ability to impose its spelling rules on the Jewish community worldwide. Unlike language authorities in countries like France, which use their power as government entities to enforce linguistic uniformity, YIVO can only make suggestions. Perhaps that is just as well, given that YIVO's preferred spelling for the Festival of Lights is the almost unrecognizable “Khanike.”


As for young Mr. Mahankali, he has never even eaten a knaidel, a culinary lapse likely soon to be remedied, given the many offers he has already received. But will it be kosher or kashrut?


And here’s a tip for aspiring spelling champions: the plural of knaidel is knaidlach. Or is it knaidelach?

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Some Say the Spelling of a Winning Word Just Wasn’t Kosher (by Joseph Berger, New York Times)

How Do You Spell 'Knaidel'? (by Renee Ghert-Zand, Jewish Daily Forward)


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