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Pronouncer Peter Sokolowski brings skill to hometown bee

  • Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, will be the word pronouncer for the Northampton Education Foundation Adult Spelling Bee Wednesday night. He is shown in a room near his office in Springfield Tuesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

As an editor-at-large for the iconic dictionary producer Merriam-Webster, Sokolowski will be one of the all-important word pronouncers at the 13th Northampton Education Foundation’s Adult Spelling Bee, which starts at 6 p.m. at JFK Middle School when 39 spelling teams compete in a test of orthographic prowess.

Sokolowski said he first became involved with professional word pronouncing after being sent to South Korea in 2008 by Merriam-Webster. His assignment was to serve as a pronouncer for the Korean version of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“It was both accidental and international,” he said in a telephone interview Monday from his Springfield office at Merriam-Webster.

“One of the rules of the Scripps Spelling Bee is that the words have to come from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, and so they contacted us and asked for a pronouncer, and I was the one who they sent,” Sokolowski said. “I had never done anything exactly like that before, but I’ve done it almost every year since.”

Proper pronunciation in a spelling bee is crucial, for words that spellers might know as well as those they don’t, when they will be looking for a variety of clues to puzzle out the correct spelling.

Sokolowski said that if a word has more than one pronunciation, such as “harassment,” he will give both pronunciations during the contest. He said he usually studies the word lists before the competition begins to familiarize himself with the words. When he is pronouncing for contests in foreign countries, he said, he will usually reject words that have multiple spellings, so as not to confuse the speller.

English is a tricky language for many reasons, he said.

“English has a history of adopting words from other languages — like Latin and French — and absorbing the influences of the world,” he said. “And of course the changes in English itself, like the great vowel shift of the Middle Ages, which is why we have words like ‘cough,’ and ‘bough,’ ‘though’ and ‘through,’ that all have different vowel sounds but are spelled the same way. Those are all consequences of the long history of English.”

Other languages, like Spanish and Italian, are more standard, with fewer silent letters and many spellings for the same sound, Sokolowski said.

“It’s the inverse of the problem I just described, with the o-u-g-h,” he said. “And yet other languages like French with many, many silent letters are much more regular than English in its phonetics.”

Sokolowski will join two other word pronouncers for tonight’s bee: UMass English department chairman Joe Bartolomeo and UMass communications professor Jarice Hanson, both of whom have pronounced for the event before.

For the record, last year’s winning word was muliebrity, meaning femininity.

Expected at this year’s bee are at least four past champion teams — the Gazette’s Headliners (2001 and 2006); Northampton Veterinary Clinic (2011); The Collaborative/Witch Doctors (2008) and the Bee Attitudes (2012).

Sokolowski knows firsthand how important it is to have enough words at the ready, just in case the competition is so strong that teams run through oodles of words.

At a bee in India, where organizers had prepared a 100-word list for 40 spellers, it turned out there were barely enough words to get through three rounds of competition.

“We were scrambling through the pages of a dictionary at the judges’ table to find good words as we went. It’s better to be prepared, needless to say,” Sokolowski said in an email follow up to his telephone interview with the Gazette.

A job that stuck

According to Sokolowski, the Korean government now mandates English education for all students in Korea starting in first grade. He said one of the English-language schools in Korea licensed the Scripps bee, making Korea the first country that doesn’t have English as a home language to compete in the national spelling bee.

The winner of the competition, held in the South Korean capital Seoul, is invited to travel to the United States to compete in the national Scripps bee in Washington.

Since then, Sokolowski has pronounced for U.S. State Department-sponsored spelling bees in India and Brazil, as well as for bees in New York City and Washington.

He said his first time pronouncing for an adult spelling bee such as tonight’s event in Northampton was at Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington.

That particular bee was hosted by famed sportswriter and public radio correspondent Stefan Fatsis and saw a number of celebrity participants, including Slate Magazine editor-in-chief David Plotz and Melissa Block, a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The event was such a success that Sokolowski has been invited back for a repeat performance in May.

Sokolowski landed his job at Merriam-Webster — and his related career as a professional word pronouncer — after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a master’s degree in French literature.

“I was a teaching assistant there, and right as I finished I was going to go somewhere else to do a doctorate, but at the same time I was invited to write a French dictionary for Merriam-Webster,” Sokolowski said. “I took it, initially thinking I would go back to finish my doctorate, but, in fact, I never went back, so I’ve been there for 19 years.”

After finishing his work on the French dictionary, he went on to work on the famous Collegiate dictionary and, more recently, on a non-native speaker’s version called Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. He spent the last week in Dallas delivering lectures about that version.

He noted that the learner’s dictionary fits in well with the needs of the South Korean schools in particular.

“The dictionary is written specifically for them, and we found that it makes a huge difference. A dictionary that is written for non-native speakers has a different approach, and much more explicit grammar,” Sokolowski said. “It really is essential for them, and that’s why I’ve been traveling internationally.”

Sokolowski said he also conducts a series of lectures and workshops on the topic of English education when he visits Korea on behalf of Merriam-Webster.

In recent months, Sokolowski was featured on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” program and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he talked about one of his other duties at Merriam-Webster — monitoring spikes in the popularity of particular words that are searched for on the company’s website . Just this week, he was also featured on Time’s Best Twitter Feeds of 2013 list.

Money raised from the spelling bee — generated through team registration fees of $250 each, donations, bake sales and raffles — is used to support the NEF’s Small Grants for Teachers program.

The education foundation awarded $41,364 last year to fund creative and innovative grants written by the teachers, administrators or parents in city schools. The bee awards prizes for spelling, costumes and humor.

Sokolowski said that he is particularly excited about pronouncing for the NEF’s spelling bee in his hometown: “I’ve done spelling bees in Calcutta and Sao Paulo and Seoul, but now I’m finally doing one in Northampton,” he said.

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