Coming in First: Sound and Embodiment in Spelling Bees

Shalini Shankar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The increasingly intense level of competition of the National Spelling Bee in recent years suggests that this “brain sport” has become a complex site for the politics of language standardization, media, and childhood competition. In this article I delve into this nexus to explore its heart: sound. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted at spelling bees and with spellers, families, officials, and media broadcasters, I examine how spellers experience the word as a mélange of sounds, the embodied processes that inform their orthographic choices, and how this sensory process made viewable for media audiences who may know little about orthography. Employing what Steve Feld (2015) has called “acoustemology,” I analyze competitive spelling through the lens of “firstness,” a concept the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1955) identified as a mode of being replete with unmediated feelings and qualities. Two-minute spelling bee turns serve as ethnographic examples of language materiality that reveal the complex routines that spellers undertake in each spelling bee round. This onstage sensorium also provides a basis upon which media broadcasters create metasemiotic frameworks through which to observe and understand the complexity this sensory activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-140
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Linguistic Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • media
  • orthography
  • semiotics
  • soundscape
  • youth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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