NEW YORK — 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 matzoh 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 Manhattan-based organization recognized by many Yiddish speakers as the authority on all things Yiddish.
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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 newspaper, 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 such as Yiddish, not to mention English, become as people migrate and assimilate.
The word was spelled Thursday — correctly, according to contest officials — by Arvind Mahankali, 13, an eighth-grader from Queens, who is a son of immigrants from India and New York City’s first national champion since 1997. He has never eaten an actual knaidel.
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.
Such experts as 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 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 spells those words as khutspe and khale, but most Yiddish speakers prefer the more popular variants.
In the United States, experts have gradually relented on the spelling of words such as Chanukah or Hanukkah, which they would prefer to spell Khanike.
Even Leo Rosten’s “The New Joys of Yiddish,” whose earlier edition is used by many newsrooms 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 preferred knaydl.
As for Arvind, 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 Monday.