Word Matters Podcast

An Interview with Jacques Bailly

Word Matters, episode 90

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a special guest who says all the words right. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: Jacques Bailly has been the official pronouncer for Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2003, 23 years after winning the Bee himself. A professor in the classics department at the University of Vermont, his language expertise is vast. Peter introduces us.

Peter Sokolowski: We have talked about dictionaries from so many perspectives, but there's one important thing I don't think we've mentioned yet, which is spelling bees. To have a spelling bee it is important to have a dictionary. And I remember the first time I attended the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC. And I was in the room, this dark room, 2000 people around, you're on TV live, and what I heard was definitions read over and over, kind of like this abstract poetry. But there's a very kind of particular style of a Merriam-Webster definition. And I felt like I was the only one in the room who was hearing this as a kind of call to home. And the voice who was reading those definitions was the voice of Professor Jacques Bailly, who is the pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and has been for many years and he's our guest for this edition of Word Matters and Jacques welcome.

Jacques Bailly: Thank you, Peter.

Peter Sokolowski: There's a lot of questions we have for you. You are a professor of classics, so you teach both Latin and Greek.

Jacques Bailly: Yes. Classics departments teach Latin and Greek, so they also teach anything from the Greco Roman world and a lot of the ancient Mediterranean, all in English. So there's a lot of classical civilization courses as well.

Peter Sokolowski: And you have a connection to the Bee that goes even deeper than being the pronouncer, which is to say that you are a former winner of the Bee.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. Long time ago, back in 1980, I won the spelling Bee by spelling the word elucubrate.

Peter Sokolowski: Elucubrate.

Emily Brewster: Can you still spell it?

Jacques Bailly: I can. It's not a very hard word. It's E-L-U-C-U-B-R-A-T-E. And it's a fun word because it's like ravel and unravel. Lucubrate and elucubrate mean the same thing.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Jacques Bailly: Ah.

Peter Sokolowski: And appropriately enough has classical roots. And when people ask me how to study for the Bee, the first thing I say is etymologies. It just seems so perfect that you won the Bee and then so many of the etymologies that are studied do go back to Latin and Greek.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. I teach a course at the University of Vermont, where I teach in etymology and it does fit very well. Classics students basically have to know French and German and Italian and Latin and Greek and those are among the major roots of English that are hard to spell.

Peter Sokolowski: What's interesting to me sometimes at the Bee is that the clearer the root back to Latin or Greek, the better chances the speller has. Often a modern German or French borrowing can have different phonetics that require spelling in English that are not traditional. And those can be very, very tricky, but they're also not necessarily etymological. They're just modern aspects of those languages.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. The thing is at Scripps National Bee, the kids that you see up there have studied hard and as you say, the easy button is to study all the Greek and Latin roots you can find. So that words like otorhinolaryngology are perfectly easy because it's like Lego, you know every part of them. But they're still hard for the rest of us sitting here at home, trying to spell words.

Peter Sokolowski: I think we need to describe what a pronouncer does. I think a lot of people don't think a lot about it. If you just tune into the Bee, you hear the word spoken, you may not even see the person speaking it. But there is, what I have found in observing the Bee, an almost intimate relationship between the speller and you the pronouncer, because they're very close to you. They're on stage and you're not, but they're looking right at you. So what is the responsibility of the pronouncer?

Jacques Bailly: I am basically a conduit between the dictionary and the speller and what they want is a reliable conduit that will just convey the information very clearly and fairly quickly so that they have time to ask for more information. So I sit there and read things that we've set up as a script beforehand. And I also try and put them at ease and know that I'm going to do whatever I can to help them. But basically I'm a conduit of information from the dictionary to them. Because as you say, you need one dictionary, one standard, and that's the Merriam-Webster Unabridged, online.

Emily Brewster: I love that image of you as a conduit because the ideas that they need to have relayed correctly, that is in the dictionary but of course they can't see it. They have to have that auditory information and then translate that into the actual spelling that appears in the dictionary.

Jacques Bailly: Sometimes I think we could just project it on a screen for them to look at. And I suppose if we ever had somebody with a certain sort of disability, we might do that, but there's this long tradition of a spelling bee, which is an oral thing where everybody stands up in front of everybody and somebody gives the word. It's a very traditional thing and the structure is traditional going back a couple hundred years now.

Peter Sokolowski: And you said something important, which is you try to help them because the sort of appearance is adversarial, which is to say that they're looking at you sitting at a desk looking across at them. They're on stage looking down a bit at you. And there's a big light on the poor speller and it actually is not adversarial. And can you tell us what you are permitted to tell the speller? I know that you can't help them in any outside way, but there is a specific set of information that you can give.

Jacques Bailly: Yes. So the primary information that I think is most important is the pronunciation. And we can give the pronunciations that are in the dictionary. So sometimes we have to wait for the dictionary to catch up to how things are pronounced, but generally speaking, there's a fair bit of variance. So I can say \ˈpā-ˌthäs\ , \ˈpā-ˌthȯs\ , \ˈpā-ˌthōs\ also \ˈpa-ˌthäs\ , \ˈpa-ˌthȯs\, \ˈpa-ˌthōs \ and so there's only certain variants on pronunciation that are in the dictionary. Then I can give the definition and we only give one sense. So they can't say, "Does the word have other meanings?" We just give that one sense. So if it's the word rhubarb, and we've chosen the meaning of "a quarrel or a little dispute," we can't tell them it's that plant in your garden. They can ask for the word used in a sentence. Sometimes we have a funny sentence, but we always have a serious sentence there that really uses the word. They can ask for the part of speech and along with that, we can tell them whether it's plural or past tense. They can ask for a specific root word, but they have to give a reasonable pronunciation of that root, the language it's from, and a reasonable meaning. If those three things aren't there, we'll ask them to supply them and then we can answer that question.

Emily Brewster: So they're asking you a yes-no question about a particular root. Is that Correct?

Jacques Bailly: They ask a yes-no question, but we do a little fancy dancing because we know that the dictionary can't possibly include everything known about the history of the word.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Jacques Bailly: So if they ask about a root that we don't see in the dictionary, we don't say, "No, that's not a root." What we say is we don't see that in the dictionary. Because it may be that it is somewhere in a related entry and there's the human factor that we're under the gun there. And we have to answer within a few seconds and my associate pronouncer handles most of those questions. And he really feels the pressure of that. That's Dr. Sietsema, who used to be the pronunciation editor at Merriam-Webster.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: I worked with Brian for years. In fact, he provided the phonetic transcriptions for the French-English dictionary that was my first project. So we've been friends for a long, long time. And it is true. People just tuning into the Bee may not understand that there are in fact two pronouncers and the fact that the etymological questions or those details that are given are the responsibility of the associate pronouncer of Dr. Brian Sietsema, that also gives you a tiny little mental break for a second. Doesn't it? It allows you to think about phonetics more than these other details.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. By the time we get to the Bee, I am ready to have fun. It's a script that we've been working on for months. And once in a while, there's a little tweak we can improve it. But generally speaking, the script is ready and all the information is at our fingertips or on the screen in front of us. And so I have fun at the Bee because I don't need to worry so much. Of course, I'm always paying attention and Dr. Sietsema and I will notice once in a while, "Oh, that needs a little tweaking." Or sometimes I actually mispronounce because, believe it or not, I don't pronounce every word the way the dictionary does. So when I'm up there in my official role, I have to say the word the way the dictionary does. So I can't say \ˈbal-bri-gən\. I have to say \bal-ˈbri-gən\ because that stress might throw them off and I have to have it just the way the dictionary does it. I tend to stress the first syllable of a word. I don't know why, but Brian has been on me a lot about that.

Peter Sokolowski: You have to be aware of your own idiolect to make sure that you're speaking in a kind of neutral way. The one thing that impresses me, and again, it may be just something that many people don't notice, but the basic fact that you are so levelheaded and even; what I mean by that is that the experience for the spellers is very similar. That is to say that, you reflect a kind of calm, but also you're giving them the same kind of attention and the same kind of details and that makes the game fair. You're in a good mood, but it's a serious endeavor and you are treating every single speller exactly the same way, but also every single phonetic transcription, exactly the same way. That's so important to a competition at this level.

Jacques Bailly: Well, I'm glad you think that I do that. That's what I strive for.

Peter Sokolowski: And you said the human factor and that's what's interesting too, because a dictionary could sometimes seem mechanical or sort of inhuman and you have to actually speak the words out loud. And if there's a variant, do you automatically say it or do you wait for the speller to ask?

Jacques Bailly: It depends. If I think that the variants might be helpful, I'll give everyone that I think is likely to be helpful. If they ask, "Are there any variants?" I'll give ever one that we've listed there. Sometimes there are so many variants you can't possibly give them all. I don't know if you've ever looked up the word conquistador, if you add all the permutations in there, there must be 20 variants. And there's no point in giving 20, it would go on forever and ever. So we cut it down to give each syllable's variance at least once and not to give every permutation. And for some reason there were people who worked for Merriam-Webster who put in R-dropper pronunciations, for instance. There's that rock, the chert, used to make some stone tools in neolithic times. There's actually pronunciation in there, I don't know if it's still in there, but it used to be of chat. And I assume that's an R-dropper pronunciation and one time a speller asked for the alternate and really wanted it. So I gave it, of course that misled them, but...

Emily Brewster: Right. But what can you do? That was in there. Now if a variant pronunciation is labeled as nonstandard, can you provide that information or no?

Jacques Bailly: I can. "Nonstandard" doesn't really mean wrong. So I'll really only provide it in two situations. One, if it's obviously possibly helpful—it makes some syllable clearer or a stress helps. And if the speller really presses and says, "Are there any other pronunciations? You're sure there's no other pronunciations?" Then I'll just give everything.

Emily Brewster: I'm thinking in particular of the word mischievous, which has that alternate pronunciation of \mis-ˈchē-vē-əs\. We've talked about that on this podcast before, because I think that until I was an editor at Merriam-Webster, I said \mis-ˈchē-vē-əs\. And then I realized, "Wait a minute, there's no, I-O-U-S." In my mind, the "i" was in the other syllable. And so I know that we do give \mis-ˈchē-vē-əs\ as an alternate pronunciation, but we label it as "nonstandard" and we do not provide a spelling that corresponds to that pronunciation.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. And so what I do there is I would say \ˈmis-chə-vəs\ and then if asked for the alternate, I might give \mis-ˈchē-vē-əs\ because it's fairly common, but then I would say \ˈmis-chə-vəs\ about three times as many times as \mis-ˈchē-vē-əs\.

Emily Brewster: That's very good of you.

Jacques Bailly: I'd say \ˈmis-chə-vəs\. I would say "\ˈmis-chə-vəs\ sometimes \mis-ˈchē-vē-əs\, \ˈmis-chə-vəs\, \ˈmis-chə-vəs\." You know?

Emily Brewster: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jacques Bailly: I try and say the word as many times as I possibly can, because I think that's the most helpful information.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More with Jacques Bailly ahead. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code MATTERS at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Our conversation with Jacques Bailly continues.

Emily Brewster: Is there a source language that you think is the most difficult or several source languages for borrowings that are especially challenging?

Jacques Bailly: I don't think you can rate it that simply. I grew up trying to learn French. My father was French and I went to France a lot. So the French words weren't as hard for me as for some other people. German words, if you haven't taken German, are very difficult, but if you've taken German, you realize, "Oh wow, they are easy." Because there's only a few little things that might be different. You know, the \sh\ sound might be a little different, but Hawaiian words, they seem very hard if you sort of gather them all and you're not familiar with them. But if you look at them all together for a little while and you figure out, "Oh, this language has very, very few phonemes and they're mostly spelled in a systematic way." And suddenly Hawaiian becomes easier. So that's what these spellers do is, the top ones that you see that just won't miss a word ever, they've drilled down on each language and figured that out. Now, what becomes really hard is when a word gets anglicized, when it has a certain shape in German, but then when it moved into English, we tweaked the spelling a little for some random reason, and that becomes very unpredictable. French words often have that problem, too.

Emily Brewster: That makes good sense to me. I studied German in school and there's a very clear system to German spelling and also with many of the Romance languages. I was in an adult spelling bee a bunch of years ago and the words that were borrowed from Southeast Asian languages, especially botanical terms, I was hopeless. No possible way of guessing the spelling of a tree gets its name from Tagalog. No hope.

Jacques Bailly: Most of those words are spelled phonetically. It's not clear that there's only one way to spell the word the way it sounds, but usually there's a limitation of variance there. So with a lot of those words, there's a sort of pass through language. It might have gone around through Arabic, or it might have gone the other way through some colonial power, straight into a European language. In Brazil, for instance, or South America, you get a lot of Tupi words, but they typically pass through Spanish or Portuguese. And so Spanish or Portuguese might handle them a little bit, change the spelling a bit.

Peter Sokolowski: Now I have a couple of specific letter questions. One is the letter "t" when Americans speak, we often pronounce the "t" more like a "d" like the word battle, for example. And I think phoneticist call that a flap. And I once had a great chat with you, because this was an important question for me, a lot of the spelling bees that I pronounce for are for learners of English. For example, the National Spelling Bee of Mexico. These are much simpler words. This is an exercise really just in kind of studying for the kids, but it's a fun event. And I often wonder, should I aspirate that "t"; should I say \ˈbat-ᵊl\? And then you once told me that there is a whole kind of gradation that you can aspirate hard, or you can aspirate light. And I wonder if you could just expand on that a little bit. How do you approach that kind of consonant?

Jacques Bailly: That's a fairly difficult question. There's a fairness aspect. You want to definitely have one approach so everybody gets the same approach. So what I do is within my own idiolect, I have some crisp "t's" that are \tuh\ and some flaps "d's" that are just like \duh\. And what I try and do for the spelling bee is to push the envelope as far as I can towards a crisp "t" without making it sound unnatural. If it's a "t" in the word and the pronunciation symbol allows for that "t" or if it's a "d" to sort of push it towards that \duh\ sound as much as I can without making it unnatural. The problem is that when you pronounce a word in isolation, it's not in its natural setting.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Jacques Bailly: And you could exaggerate that. I feel like there's kind of an envelope. You don't want to push it beyond the bounds. You don't want to overpronounce the phoneme. What's even harder is the schwa.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, that was my next question.

Jacques Bailly: Those are often fishing to try and make that schwa clear. And they'll pronounce it with a very clear \i\ or \a\ or \ā\, and all I can do is repeat the \ə\. And I won't tell them that they're wrong, but if I hear something where they're trying to over pronounce it, I will immediately say it with an \ə\ right after them. You know, I won't say no, I won't say yes, I will just say it with an \ə\ immediately after they say it. Every time they say it exaggeratedly, because I don't want to tell them they're wrong. I don't want to tell them they're right, because it's a real problem with spelling bees, because you have acoustics and you have an AV system and that can distort and they have to figure out what the word is. It's not our responsibility to tell them whether they're pronouncing it correctly. And that's a little hard for an audience to understand, but it's really treacherous if we get into the business of saying "That's a correct pronunciation." Because they're supposed to triangulate or quadrangulate between the meaning and the part of speech and the use in a sentence and the pronunciation.

Jacques Bailly: So we've had a lot of conversations around that and we don't tell them they're right or wrong. If we hear something we think might be wrong, we say, "Listen carefully and repeat it." It's a delicate thing. Dictionaries have this issue that they give the etymology of a word in a certain fashion. They don't give the spelling etymology. They don't say, "This is influenced by French spelling." Even though it's not from French, or "This is influenced by the way English spells Greek words." Even though it's not from Greek and they don't also get into pronunciation thing. I don't know how many times I've heard people say, "oh, that's not my \ˈfȯr-​ˌtā\." And if you speak French, you know that there is no word \ˈfȯr-​ˌtā\ in French. It's not accented on that "e," but English speakers have decided that, "Well, French has an \ā\ at the end. So it's going to be \ˈfȯr-​ˌtā\." There's words like that, where the pronunciation has a certain etymology, but the dictionary can't go into every aspect of etymology.

Emily Brewster: That's right. The etymologist's job is really pretty narrowly described as being strictly about the history of the word's form.

Peter Sokolowski: And also how it came into English. And I've talked about this with you before Jacques. The etymologies can be frustrating because it tells us the last step. So if this word came from Italian, that might be all we give in the dictionary and yet that word itself in Italian might have come from Latin, for example.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Jacques Bailly: And also, I think now the etymology editor has been adding in more discussions. Sometimes here and there, I find a longer discussion about a bunch of words together, and those are really gold and wonderful. But at the spelling bee, we have just seconds to answer these questions and we've simplified it down to language of origin. And that's not even etymology. That's a language. To really get into etymology you need to spend a few minutes with a bunch of dictionaries and look at the word as it's used, and it's going to take you hours to really figure out a given etymology. It's not seconds. So what we do is so highly condensed and stylized.

Peter Sokolowski: You mentioned something else that we didn't say expressly, which is really important, which is that your job is every bit as much about listening as it is producing these sounds. In other words, the speller just has to spell the word, but if the speller repeats the word and does not repeat it in a way that is easily recognizable to you, they probably are on the wrong track. And so hearing them repeat the word, and of course the spellers know this, they will repeat it many times if they're unsure, and hearing them repeat it really is important. And it's a big part of the Bee for not just you, but the judges.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. Every official there, even people who have no visible official role, we encourage them all to listen. And if they hear anything that they think might not be right, they should say, "Have them repeat the word." But it's a really important distinction that we aren't there to guarantee that they're saying it correctly. We're trying to guarantee that we haven't heard anything that we know is different from the dictionary pronunciation. It's very important because you get a lot of people who get upset because their speller misheard the word or something. There is no possible way we can absolutely guarantee that. So we are trying to guarantee that a procedure is followed, that the pronunciation that I, or Dr. Sietsema, or even sometimes Kevin Moch pronounces, that those pronunciations are the ones that are in the dictionary and that we didn't hear anything problematic. Or if we did, there was no time to do anything about it. Because spellers are fast and sometimes you hear something and they started spelling and once they start spelling, well, you let them spell.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And there's a purity about it. You will repeat the word, but you don't say the stress is on the second syllable. You can't do that. And so you're limited in the amount that you can give.

Jacques Bailly: Yeah. We've never gone into describing the pronunciation. We will say things like, "Listen to the end." Or "Listen to the middle." But we won't say that third syllable will make an R sound. We'll never ever say that. That's again about what a spelling bee is. It's the traditional shape of the contest. There's no mandatory reason why we shouldn't do that or why we shouldn't just flash up on the screen the diacritical symbols, which are in-house Merriam-Webster symbols or IPA or something. There's no reason why we shouldn't do that. It's just the traditional shape of what the Scripps National Spelling Bee is. And I think a lot of people understand that and know it and might even be upset if we changed it.

Emily Brewster: Oh, I'm sure. The spellers that you are encountering have been through so many other bees. They're the best spellers of English words, bar none. This is how they come to be in this particular competition. Do you know if the process that these spellers tend to go with has changed over the years, or do they follow the same methods, same tried and true methods, generation after generation?

Jacques Bailly: It has definitely evolved. The Bee is much more difficult than it used to be. And there are various reasons for that. One is that there's a bigger pool of spellers. Another is that the competition level has risen as the profile of the Bee has become larger and more people are aware of it and involved in it. Also, I think that there are different pools of culture of studying and the ones that do study the origins of the word, the etymology, and that try to come up with lists of all the words from Tagalog or something, that they have a leg up. There are study materials out there. There are even professionals who charge an arm and a leg for this stuff that really you should be developing yourself because you'll learn a lot more from doing that. So there's a lot of different ways of studying.

Jacques Bailly: Also, a few years ago, the Scripps Bee introduced a multiple choice element where you have to know the meaning of the word. So you'll get a word and then you'll be offered four choices and you have to pick the meaning. We call it the vocabulary element. I was just over the moon when we did that, because it's so important to know the meaning of the word. There are many people who can't spell worth a bean, but they are famous writers and they actually are using the language, which is so much more important than actually producing the dictionary spelling.

Jacques Bailly: That makes you wonder, well, so why do we have a spelling bee?

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Jacques Bailly: I think I have a good answer to that. We cut off the age at the eighth grade or 14. And when you think about it, that is the point when you're going on to high school, when you're starting to enter much more divided, disciplinary learning, where you might take physics, you might take biology, you might take literature. And then in college, you divide it again. And up until about eighth grade, you're just learning words. And knowing that a word exists, that there's such a thing as an ophicleide opens your world to something. And a first step towards developing your knowledge of the world is to know what the names of things are.

Jacques Bailly: And so I think at this point, at that age level, it's a tremendously important gateway skill that can open all kinds of windows. Later on when you got 30 or 50 year-olds in a spelling bee, it becomes a bit of a stupid human trick. Knowing how to spell the word is so much less important than knowing the meaning of it or writing a poem that uses it magnificently. But at that age, knowing that words exist and knowing their shapes is tremendously important.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a beautiful thought. It's a wonderful way to bring this conversation to an end. Thank you so much, Jacques. It's a treat to hear you on the phone and we will hear you at the Bee as well and looking forward to it.

Emily Brewster: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Jacques. This has been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for giving us your time today. And I hope that this next upcoming Bee is great fun.

Jacques Bailly: Well, thank you Emily and thank you Peter.

Peter Sokolowski: Thank you.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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