Jasmine was an American seventh grader whose first language (L1) is Punjabi and second language (L2) is English. A good speller, she tied for first place at her regional spelling bee. She maintains that she then correctly spelled the tie-breaking word: tomography. After requesting an instant video replay of her word, the judges declared Jasmine’s spelling incorrect: <d-o-m-o-g-r-a-p-h-y>. We examine three questions: Is Jasmine’s presumed-high word-recognition ability consistent with such an error? Did her L1 interfere with her L2 pronunciation? Did an L1-influenced pronunciation cause the judges to perceive her word-initial /t/ as [d]? After inquiring of Jasmine about the spelling event itself, we examined the considerable research on Indian English, spelling, speech production, and speech perception; we also audio-recorded Jasmine’s spoken language at various style levels to assess the degree to which Punjabi may be influencing her English pronunciation. The first question remains without a confirmed answer, though our assumption is that it is ‘no’. Work on Indian English indicates a probable ‘yes’ to the latter two questions. Spectrographic analysis of Jasmine’s word-initial English [th]-sounds demonstrates the shorter voice onset times associated with the nonaspirated /t/-sounds of Punjabi and Indian English. It is probable that Jasmine pronounced the ‘t’ [th] of tomography with little or no aspiration, and that the judges heard the near-unaspirated [t] as a [d]. Jasmine’s experience demonstrates that the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s sole reliance on dictionary pronunciations of Standard American English might well be adjusted to accommodate contestants who speak a nonstandard, or a standard but non-American, variety of English.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. e149-e164
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.