According to some Yiddish speakers and experts, the winning "Knaidel" heard 'round the word nerd world last Thursday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee wasn't spelled correctly after all. It should be "kneydl..." or maybe "knadel," or "kneidel." Ok, so there's no consensus on which letters are wrong, exactly. The point? Yiddish, which uses a non-Roman alphabet, has no standardized transliteration into English, making it difficult to pin down just one correct spelling.
No one is going to snatch Arvind Mahankali's trophy away, however. The spelling from the Bee is based on the Merriam-Webster standard spelling of the word, which would be what Bee hopefuls studied before the spell-off began. M-W, for their part, say the spelling is the most common Roman transliteration of the word, hence their choice. So as far as the competition goes, there's no controversy — Mahankali spelled the word correctly, by the rules of the competition. The end. But that's not going to stop what's already a lively debate highlighting the possible problems in digging deep into the esoteric for Bee words.
According to the New York Times, Dissenters include the YIVO institute for Jewish Research, the Second Avenue Deli, in Midtown Manhattan, and a group of Yiddish speakers at the Riverside Y Senior Center at the Bronx, who were discussing the subject last Friday:
“K-n-a-d-e-l,” said Gloria Birnbaum, 83, whose first language was Yiddish. She teaches a class at the center in “mamalushen,” the mother tongue of Yiddish, to seniors who want to better understand “the things you heard your mother say.”
“I wouldn’t have spelled it with an ‘i,’ ” she added.
But Aaron Goldman, a former accountant and sales manager in a blue baseball cap, jumped to his feet and banged on the table as plastic wear bounced.
“That would be ‘knawdle,’ not knaidle!” he said.
YIVO believes Kneydl is right, and they're considered an authoritative source by many. Others are arguing that there simply is no authoritative spelling — just a consensus on pronunciation. This is true for a lot of words from the Hebrew alphabet (which Yiddish uses) like "Hannukah," and "Mazel Tov."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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