Jacques Bailly’s full time job is being a professor of classics at the University of Vermont, specializing in Greek, Latin and Ancient philosophy. However, for one week every year, he serves as the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer.
“I get a front row seat at the best event in the world and that's basically what I think of this. I have a tremendous amount of fun reading out spellers’ words during the competition,” he says.
Pronouncing the words is not all Bailly does in his role. As each speller is greeted with a word, he provides definitions, word origins, and even alternate pronunciations, to help spellers receive the best chance of spelling the word.
Practicing the vetted list of words is something Bailly says he really doesn’t have to do before the spelling bee begins. He says there is a whole team of people, including himself, that go over the words.
What Bailly does do is practice reading the symbols for the sounds of the words.
“The fact is there are only about 52 sounds in English, 52 phonemes and words are just combinations of these 52 sounds and we can all make these sounds. I simply have practiced reading the symbols for the sounds. So I don't know how to pronounce all these words in my regular life. I would have to look up a lot of them in the dictionary. But at the spelling bee it's all right in front of me so I just read it. And it's rather easy to read,” he says.
As the primary and middle schoolers work their brain power to spell the word given, Bailly knows what it’s like to be them. He won the Scripps National Bee as a 14 year-old in 1980. He won with the word “elucubrate.”
Although most participants are from the United States, students from countries such as The Bahamas, Canada, and the People's Republic of China, India, Ghana, Japan, Jamaica, Mexico, and New Zealand have also competed in recent years.
Spellers call him Dr. Bailly, or Doc, and for some spellers, it isn’t their first time competing in the Bee. Bailly has held the position of official pronouncer since 2003, and he says he still loves words and language.
“I've always been fascinated with Arabic. I love the alphabet because instead of having just one form of each letter they have one at the beginning of the word, one in the middle and one at the end depending where the letter falls. I think that's neat. I love Chinese because of those ideograms and I can't believe they haven't simplified it, he says it takes so many more years to become literate in Chinese than it does in English, but it is beautiful and it's just a really different structure so it really stimulates you to think about language. I love Greek and Latin that's why I teach them. I think there are great languages but more than that especially Greek, the things you can read and discover are at the root of our intellectual life as human beings,” he says.
Bailly says he usually knows when a speller is going to win.
“I've been seeing them spell words for three days. At that point, and I know if they think they know it, and usually they think they know it. And so I sort of know, because you can tell in their face,” he says.
Bailly says that the National Spelling Bee is a celebration of knowledge.
“I honestly don't care who wins. It doesn't matter to me, because I don't think that's what this is about. When they get here, they have won the biggest winning they could win, which is all that knowledge. This is a celebration of that, and it’s a wonderful celebration.”