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Out of Many, One: Spelling Bees and the United States National Spelling Bee

Keywords: orthography , spelling , spelling bees , pedagogy , American dialect literature , American English

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Abstract:

The spelling bee is a paradigmatically American institution. The cultural practice of spelling bees emerged in the United States in a nexus of social, political, pedagogical and linguistic factors roughly linked to the emergence of American English as a unitary category tied to America’s political identity after the Revolutionary War. Representations of spelling bees and spelling matches in the nineteenth century reflect this linguistic identity in the process of negotiation. In the twentieth century, spelling bees became media events and the unofficial, community-oriented practice of spelling bees was officialised in the form of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In popular culture, the National Bee is implicated in a specific version of American identity, in which hard work leads to material success. As such, its focus is less on reinforcing and consolidating orthographical norms than on the perceived social and pedagogical benefits of the difficulty of performing, and, more specifically, learning to perform, those norms.

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