Middle-schoolers from throughout the Plautdietsch-speaking world will descend on Grunthal, Manitoba this week for the World Low German Spelling Bee Championship. The annual event attracts top spellers from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Belize. Last year’s winner, Guillermo Toews of Asuncion, will be in attendance again this year to present the trophy.
“Plautdietsch wasn’t even a written language until a couple decades ago,” explained Toews, “but a few dictionaries have been published recently, and even though there’s some debate as to how exactly certain words are spelled, during the championship we settle any disputes with an arm wrestle.”
Toews’ winning word in the 2015 championship was schnutsboat.
“It means ‘moustache,'” said Toews. “I wasn’t really sure how to spell it, so I just made something up.”
Contestants often stumble on words starting in W or V, and the runner-up last year, Maria Hamm of Maryfield, Saskatchewan went out on the word wuatforschinj.
“I had no idea there was a Low German word for etymology,” said Hamm. “Now I know. I asked the judge to use it in a sentence, but that didn’t help at all.”
In the end there was some debate about the precise spelling of the word so it, too, was settled with an arm wrestle, which meant that Hamm, three full years younger than Toews, was at a distinct disadvantage.
Dr. Henry Sawatzky, President of the Low German Spelling Bee Association, explained the reasoning behind the arm wrestling. “These are all just made-up spellings, quite frankly, and what good Mennonite kid doesn’t love a good test of arm strength?”
In a recent spelling test in Mrs. Friesen’s Grade 4 Low German class, who plan to be in the audience at this year’s championship, every single student scored 100%.
“How can I say their spelling of kaut is incorrect just because Dr. Jack Thiessen’s dictionary says so?” remarked Friesen. “The great thing about Plautdietsch is you can make up any spelling you want. It’s very encouraging for the children.”