Some Say the Spelling of a Winning Word Just Wasn’t Kosher
The national spelling bee spelled it wrong.
Or so say mavens of Yiddish about the winning word, knaidel, in the widely televised Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night. Knaidel is the matzo ball or dumpling that Jewish cooks put in chicken soup.
But somebody may have farblondjet, or gone astray, the Yiddish experts say.
The preferred spelling has historically been kneydl, according to transliterated Yiddish orthography decided upon by linguists at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the organization based in Manhattan recognized by many Yiddish speakers as the authority on all things Yiddish.
The spelling contest, however, relies not on YIVO linguists but on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and that is what contestants cram with, said a bee spokesman, Chris Kemper. Officials at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary’s publisher, defended their choice of spelling as the most common variant of the word from a language that, problematically, is written in the Hebrew, not Roman, alphabet.
“Bubbes in Boca Raton are using the word knaidel when they mail in their recipes to The St. Petersburg Times,” said Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass. The dictionary itself says the English word is based on the Yiddish word for dumpling: “kneydel, from Middle High German knödel.”
If nothing else, the dispute is a window into the cultural stews that languages like Yiddish, not to mention English, become as people migrate and assimilate. The word was spelled on Thursday — correctly, according to contest officials — by Arvind V. Mahankali, 13, an eighth grader from Bayside, Queens, who is a son of immigrants from southern India and New York City’s first national champion since 1997. He has never eaten an actual knaidel. (It is pronounced KNEYD-l.)
While many people think of Yiddish as a seat-of-the-pants patois, it is in fact a finely structured language with grammar, usage and spelling rules, said Samuel Norich, publisher of The Jewish Daily Forward’s English and Yiddish editions, and director of YIVO from 1980 to 1992.
While most languages were formalized by national governments and their sanctioned language academies, Yiddish had no country and so relied on organizations like YIVO, which is the Yiddish acronym for Yiddish Scientific Institute and was based before World War II in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania. Experts like YIVO’s Max Weinreich and his son, Uriel, who compiled a Yiddish-English dictionary, set clear guidelines about how the language should be transliterated into English — though in that famously disputatious Jewish world those instructions were not always appreciated or obeyed.
For instance, rather than the “ch” in words like chutzpah and challah, the YIVO wordsmiths preferred “kh” because the “ch” could lead someone to a softer pronunciation, as in choice or chicken. YIVO uses the “kh” in words like khutspe (chutzpah), but most Yiddish speakers prefer the more popular variants.
“The argument is whether we make things comprehensible to the public or insist on the purity of the language,” said Anita Norich, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, who in the close-knit world of secular Yiddish speakers also happens to be Samuel Norich’s sister. She noted wryly that her efforts to slip the YIVO spelling of the writer Sholem Aleichem’s last name — Aleykhem — past publishers have always failed.
In the United States, the experts have gradually relented on the spelling of words like Hanukkah, which they would prefer to spell Khanike. Even Leo Rosten’s “The New Joys of Yiddish,” whose earlier edition is used by many as an authority on spelling Yiddish words commonly used in America, throws its hands up in surrender: “The proper transliteration of this festival’s name remains one of the great mysteries of modern Jewish life,” it says.
The book spells knaidel in YIVO fashion as kneydl though it says that the late author himself preferred knaydl.
The Second Avenue Deli, in Midtown, which has printed T-shirts and wallpaper with the Yiddish names of some of its signature foods, spells the dumpling yet another way, as kneidel, said the owner, Jack Lebewohl. On its menu, it avoids conflicts by calling the dumpling a matzo ball.
“There’s no real spelling of the word, so who determines how a word is spelled?” said Mr. Lebewohl, whose parents spoke Yiddish in their hometown outside of Lvov, in what was then southeastern Poland.
On Friday in the Bronx, a great knaidel debate was in full swing during lunch at the Riverdale Y Senior Center, where many of the 60 diners had already heard about the young spelling whiz from Queens. As they munched on brisket and kasha varnishkes, most everyone agreed on pronunciation, but there was wide discussion on how to spell it, how to make it and who makes the best one.
“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.
May Schechter, 90, told Claire Okrend, who is in her 80s, that she did not learn the word until she came to America from Romania in 1938. But, she said, she did not think any of the variants were wrong. “You can spell it any way you want,” she said.
“As long as it’s understood,” Ms. Okrend agreed.
Mr. Norich expressed a note of frustration that knaidel was spelled that way in a nationally televised contest. “Since the whole world seems to have heard about this spelling as the one that won Arvind Mahankali the national spelling bee, it has gone that much further to becoming recognized and accepted as the standard spelling,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That’s how it works.”
Spelling it knaidel, experts said, could lead to pronouncing it KNY-del, which would be wrong, or maybe just informal, since Jews in some parts of Poland did pronounce it that way.
Arvind, who attends Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School 74 in Bayside, is no rebellious word-changer. Starting in the fourth grade, he said, he began memorizing words that his father had collected from the dictionary and, when he started winning spelling bees, browsing the dictionary himself for uncommon words. He researched their derivations and language of origins as a way of better implanting the correct spelling in his mind. Arvind has always had a knack for languages, and in addition to English speaks Telugu, a southern Indi tongue, Spanish and some Hindi. This year was his fourth trip to the national contest; he finished third in 2011 and 2012.
Although he has never tasted a knaidel or a kneidl, he will soon. He said his seventh-grade science teacher, Carol Lipton, had promised to bring one to school on Monday.