Yale Linguists Slay Latin Kings

Lucy Gellman | October 22nd, 2018

Yale Linguists Slay Latin Kings

Books  |  New Haven Reads  |  Arts, Culture & Community


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Team LingBuzz takes the trophy. Lucy Gellman photos. 

Bob Frank got ready to lay the final blow into the Latin Kings and the Stellar Spellars. There was definitely an eu and a ph involved. Samuel Anderson and Chris Geissler leaned in to help him plan. From the outside, the three looked calm and collected. With erasable marker poised, they scribbled the decisive move: the word skeuomorph. They lifted it above their heads, and prepared to claim spelling mastery.

Friday night, Team LingBuzz soared to victory at the seventh annual New Haven Reads Spelling Bee, held at the Yale School of Management on Whitney Avenue. Over 250 attended the event, which raised $33,000 for the local literacy organization. The event was organized in large part by New Haven Reads Spelling Bee co-chairs Ellen Kannatt and Jill Savitt.

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Team "All's Well That Spells Well" members Lee Stump, Alder Abby Roth, and Don Brown. 

In her welcoming remarks, Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn called it a chance to come together, celebrate New Haven Reads’ volunteers, students, and staff, and “work together to make New Haven a city that reads.”

This year, she told attendees that New Haven Reads is facing a new kind of challenge—the organization no longer knows how much it will be receiving from the state. Three years ago the state told the organization it would get $80,000 for two years, and then cut that figure back to $50,000 in 2016.Now she's concerned it may disappear entirely with a new administration and legislative session. The organization received $70,000 from the state last session; it does not know how much it will receive this year.

“It’s great because of all of you,” Levinsohn added, motioning out at the audience as the auditorium filled, and students prepared to tote three boxes of fierce, dreadful and hellacious words down the stairs to Wordmaster Tom Zingarelli. In the wings, longtime emcee Anne Nyberg clapped and prepared to get the room buzzing with excitement.

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Currently, the organization serves 523 students between first and twelfth grade, with an additional 133 students on a waitlist and kindergarten and pre-k programs that serve over 50 kids combined. In its 16 years, it has has grown from a garage into a four-site operation, tutored and graduated almost 4,000 students and collected and distributed over 1,800,000 books.

On its face, the bee is simple. Between 30 and 40 teams of three—this year the number was 38, but it has fluctuated over the Bee’s seven years—compete over six “swarms” or rounds, the victors from each swarm going on to a final round before the evening ends in glory, applause, and a metric ton of Shake Shack frozen custard. Most teams take the stage in costume as they hurdle from words like righteous, algorithm, and troglodyte to psittacine, milquetoast, ululate and satrapy.

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"The Spelling Baes," who have come several years in a row. 

But for Team LingBuzz, a group of three linguists from Yale University dressed in block-printed t-shirts, slacks, button downs and bifocals, the competition was serious beeswax. Frank is a professor who specializes in computational linguistics. Anderson and Geissler are both graduate students in the department, studying the sound systems of Abkhaz and Tibetan respectively. For the past three years, the department has sent at least one team to the bee, holding 20-word tryouts among faculty and graduate students to determine who is most likely to bring home the title.

But for the past two, the linguists have been unable to take the trophy. Last year, two teams from the department lost to the Stellar Spellers, a team of star-festooned spelling whizzes from Yale’s development department, who claimed victory with the word “quokka.” The year before that, the Librarians … From Hell!! swept the floor with ”williwaw,” a sudden and violent gust of wind that defined the team by the end of the night.

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This year, the linguists returned determined to win. From the audience, they watched semi-intently as teams trounced their opponents one by one. In shiny green hats and matching shirts, Faith and Bee-gorrah took round one (knocking out a team that included this reporter) with the word mycophagist. The Latin Kings—all Latin teachers at Hill Regional Career High School, and not members of the savage street gang that has ravaged communities across this country—picked off their opponents with “psittacine,” a word that relates to birds in the parrot family.

In minutes, the Hopkins’ Buzzkills won the high school round for the umpteenth year in a row. In the fourth swarm, Team LingBuzz was up, skills put to the test as they beat out Spells Angels, The B.B. Queens, and Hiveschool in the Communibee to stay in. They watched as colleagues from Team Spell-Out, also representing the department, took the fifth swarm with ease. Then as the reigning champs, the Stellar Spellers, made their first stab at keeping the crown in swarm six.

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Then the final round was upon them. As a string of words made their way across the stage—querulous, echinacea, forbearance—teams huddled around their whiteboards, hardly breaking a sweat. From her post as emcee, Anne Nyberg had started to worry that she wouldn’t make the 10 p.m. news, joking that Zingarelli needed to speed it up with more difficult choices. Another round of hard ones—logorrhea, satrapy—and teams remained cool, pulling from their respective hiveminds. But as Zingarelli announced "skeuomorph," quizzical glances bounced from member to member on the stage.

Except for the linguists, huddled at the far right of the stage. As a computational linguist, Frank sees the word—its secondary definition is “an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object” in the Oxford English Dictionary—a fair amount in his field of study. The three scribbled away on their dry erase board, finishing with seconds to spare as other teams agonized over the letters that would seal their fate. Time ran out. Whiteboards went up, all at once. Nyberg leaned in, scrutinizing each letter.

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After a moment of confirmation from judges Gary Winfield, Stacy Spell, Ray Andrewson and Ronnell Higgins, it was clear that the team had won decisively, all other spellers decimated by the k instead of c, and eu where a w may have sounded right. The audience burst into applause. In carriers by his feet, Winfield’s twins kept on napping, unruffled by the whole affair.

On stage, it was a different story. A student carried the a small trophy over, to Team LingBuzz, handing it off to them as awardees for best costume and best team name filled the other side of the stage. The three lifted it triumphantly into the air, its seven incised plates glinting in the light. They were victorious. Now, they had a whole year to figure out how to do it again.

New Haven Reads is looking for volunteers who can give one hour per week or more to students in need of tutoring. To get involved or find out more, visit their website