Youngsters from eight nations vie for top US spelling honour

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The 86th annual National Spelling Bee kicks off on Tuesday with 281 youngsters from eight nations putting their ability to spell some of the most obscure words in the English language to the test.

Sponsored by the Scripps media group, the three-day competition at the Gaylord National Resort outside Washington is an American institution that has been won for the past five years by teenagers of South Asian heritage.

"The Scripps National Spelling Bee is not only a competition but also a cultural celebration of the English language," said its executive director Paige Kimble in a statement.

"This event spotlights our mission to inspire children to improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives," she said.

Thursday's final will be telecast live on the ESPN sports cable channel.

Most of the spellers are aged 12 to 14, but the youngest, Tara Singh, is an eight-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky who is learning Latin and Greek at school and Hindi at home.

The daughter of a radiologist and a stay-at-home mother, she was seven when she clinched the state title in March by correctly spelling laterigrade (moving sideways) and deglaciation (the uncovering of land by a disappearing glacier).

Singh, a third-grade pupil and Harry Potter enthusiast, counts humuhumunukunukuapuaa, tropomyosin and hoomalimali among her favourite words, the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper reported on Sunday in a profile.

If you must know, those words describe a small Hawaiian triggerfish, a protein involved in muscle contraction and something designed primarily to attract favourable attention, respectively.

This year, for the first time, contestants - 116 of whom speak more than one language - will be challenged on their ability not only to spell a word, but also to know its meaning as well.

Last year's winner, Snigdha Nandipati from San Diego, California, clinched top honours - including a US$30,000 (S$37,900) cash prize - by correctly spelling guetapens, a French-derived word for ambush, after 13 rounds.

Some winning words in National Spelling Bees' past have gone on to enter the popular American lexicon, like psychiatry in 1948, condominium in 1956 or croissant in 1970.

This year's contestants hail from the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea as well as the United States, its Caribbean and South Pacific territories and US military bases in Europe.

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