Spelling materiality: The branded business of competitive spelling

Shalini Shankar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Competitive spelling, once a schoolroom language-unification exercise, has become a branded, mediated phenomenon in the United States. Its small-scale start with spelling primers in single-room schoolhouses grew into a national contest through print capitalism over the twentieth century. In the last two decades, spelling bees have grown into a major enterprise underwritten by corporate sponsors and mediated through broadcast and social media. While the activity of spelling remains a language arts exercise, the scale of this competition and the material cultural forms that are linked to it have grown tremendously. The “swag” or coveted branded items and other objects that materialize “The Bee” make spelling competitions into something larger than orthography alone. The competition’s circulation through broadcast and social media platforms underscores the form of words and how they take shape in the world for spellers as well as audiences. In this chapter I ethnographically explore the language materiality of spelling. In the spelling bee world, the form of words, their “sound shapes” (Jakobson 1960), and their meanings are as relevant as orthography. The materiality of words is also evidenced through documents such as word lists and the dictionary itself, in both paper and online forms.Material culture, such as items bearing the National Spelling Bee brand and objects bearing apiary imagery, allowfor creative plays on theword “bee.” Such convergences ofwords, brands, and objects are simultaneously instances of a language ideology of standardization, semiotic mediation, and the commodification of language. Considering these aspects together, I highlight language materiality as a way to contribute to and further these academic conversations. In this volume, as well as elsewhere (see Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014; Shankar and Cavanaugh 2012), Jillian Cavanaugh and I have attended to convergences of the linguistic and the material, arguing that form is as important as the referential and indexical content of words and utterances and is also tied to political economy. In my corpus of research, I have examined these convergences with regard to advertising development and production, in which aspects of culture and language are selectively used to construct semiotic assemblages that convey brand identity (Shankar 2012, 2013, 2015).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLanguage and Materiality
Subtitle of host publicationEthnographic and Theoretical Explorations
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781316848418
ISBN (Print)9781107180949
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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