My Spelling Bee-related story (Gimme dat ding)

April 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm | In just_so, writing | Comments Off on My Spelling Bee-related story (Gimme dat ding)

Victoria BC’s Belfry Theatre has a new Facebook page where people can post stories about their spelling-related mishaps. The spelling-related stories are in reference to the Belfry’s new production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which will run from April 13 to May 16.

If you post an anecdote, you’ll be entered in a draw for tickets to the play.

Nice idea!

I’m not going to enter to win tickets (I already have access to a pair, so no need to duplicate what’s in my goodie bag anyway), but I have a story about spelling nonetheless.

When I was 8 years old, I emigrated to Canada with my parents and my sixth oldest sister (my other 5 sisters had already left home, married, etc.). I looked slightly more doofy than the spelling bee contestant pictured on the right. Actually, I probably looked a lot more different. For starters, I wore dark colored clothes – the typical immigrant kid garb in a sea of pastel-wearing natives.

And I couldn’t speak English. I won’t say “not a word,” because I must have known some basics (my father spoke English, one of my sisters lived in England and I had visited her). I’m guessing that my Wortschatz (vocabulary) amounted to, “yes,” “no,” and maybe “hello I go now.” Really, not much.

It was March when I arrived in Winnipeg – which of course was totally snowed in. My mother thought we had landed in Siberia. So did I – the “adventure” of it all went straight over my head.

I got to stay home for about a week (to acclimatize – um, …to what?), and then they sent me to school. Pointed me in the approximate direction, and gave me a shove. (I walked to school alone.)

Mrs. Dyck was my teacher – she had a few words of German (many people in the neighborhood had Mennonite backgrounds), and she gave me a rapid immersion course in grade 1 English: that is, after regular classes were over, she and I went through all the Dick and Jane primers in about 3 weeks flat.

So, after about a month in my new English environment, I got to participate in one of those spelling-cum-grammar-cum-listening tests that teachers used to deploy all the time – and which we homeschoolers certainly also used, but which these days (from what I understand) are no longer routinely given to pupils (too bad!).

Here’s how it works, for those of you who never experienced them: the teacher reads aloud a text, and the pupils have to write it out.

Simple. But it can expect a lot. Listening skills, where you have to differentiate between “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” based on the meaning of what’s being told. Punctuation skills, which test your ability to transcribe and to remember rules.

…And of course, spelling.

So, Mrs. Dyck read out some basic, inane text – which included the word “that.”

When I got my test back, I stared, mortified, at what I had written: “dat.”

Dat? Who dat? (My ears turned crimson – I was horrified.)

It was my own immigrant kid nightmare: first, I blithely ignored the perpetual treachery of the English th, replacing it instead with a simple d. So many immigrants before me had struggled with the th, made it into an s or even (blush!) a d, and none had done so without betraying their moronic inability to master that simple sound.


But there was an additional layer to my shame. Dat is the low-German version of das (the article, as in der die das).

For god’s sake, only peasants say dat!

We used to make fun of low German at home, particularly with that horrid word, dat.

For example, here’s a deliberately ridiculous rhetorical question-and-answer, designed to sound like a clunker. First, the accepted German version: Darf das [Kind] das? Das [Kind] darf das!

Next, here’s the phrase in English: “May [the child] do that? It [the child] may!”

Finally, here it is in low German, where the hapless speaker is rendered like a true idiot: Darf dat dat? Dat darf dat!

Ah, yes, peasant Morse code…

And that was my first English spelling mistake: a perfect fusion of immigrant blindness (damn you, th!) and being caught with my peasant knickers down, to boot.

I’m happy to report that after dat, I made damn sure I didn’t make any other spelling mistakes. Pulled my pants up and killed the English language. 😉

About five years later, when my English problem was long settled, the pop song Gimme dat ding came out (it has a Wikipedia page…).

Oh the irony…

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