Cover Story: Indian spell champs in the USA

Young Indian American students in the USA are running away with the national spelling bee competition year after year. In a way it reflects why Indians generally tend to be more proficient academically than many other immigrant communities in the USA

Sukanya Roy 
Year: 2011
Word: Cymotrichous

Words are all they have. And with words they can spell very well. Sukanya Roy, 14, surely did, even casting a spell over her audience.

Cymotrichous, a word with Greek origins, is not something you’d have heard used very many times. Not even if you are used to running your fingers through your hair at fairly regular intervals. Online dictionaries will quickly tell you that this tongue-twister means, “having wavy hair”, but really you do not expect a 14-year-old to spell that right. And for most adults, it indeed is Greek.

But there are exceptions like Sukanya Roy, eighth-grader at Abington Heights Middle School, Pennsylvania, who spelt the word right one evening in early June to win a marathon-length 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in the USA. Roy, participating at the competition for the third time this year won after 20 rounds in the final competition. She traced the letters of each word on her hands, round after round, increasing her confidence levels as well as her chances, as she competed to stay in contention for the title.
Past winners and their winning words
Balu Natarajan
Year: 1985
Word: Milieu
Rageshree Ramachandran
Year: 1988
Word: Elegiacal
Nupur Lala
Year: 1999
Word: Logorrhea
George Abraham Thampy 
Year: 2000
Word: Demarche

Pratyush Buddiga
Year: 2002
Word: Prospicience
Sai R. Gunturi
Year: 2006
Word: Pococurante
Anurag Kashyap 
Year: 2005
Word: Appoggiatura
Sameer Mishra
Year: 2008
Word: Guerdon

Kavya Shivashankar 
Year: 2009
Word: Laodicean
Anamika Veeramani
Year: 2010
Word: Stromuhr

And after winning, all she could do was to shake and shake with excitement. “My heart started pounding, I guess. I couldn’t believe it,” she told an ESPN broadcaster soon after collecting her trophy. The trophy, though, wasn’t the only thing that she collected. Roy took home a USD 30,000 cash prize, a USD 2,500 savings bond, a complete reference library, a USD 5,000 scholarship, USD 2,600 in reference works and other prizes. Beaming at the end, she simply said, “I just wanted to spell it right. I really didn’t want to get it wrong.”

Roy was among 275 spellers who started the bee. They included students from the United States and its territories, the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. She kept away the favourite Laura Newcombe who tied for 5th position at last year’s competition. The Boston-born Roy herself had participated in the 2009 and 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bees, tying for 12th place in 2009 and 20th place in 2010. 

Spelling words like cymotrichous is not the only thing that Roy does well. She has participated at math competitions, winning first place in the individual portion of the Northeast Pennsylvania Chapter Mathcounts Competition. She plays the piano as well as the violin in her school’s orchestra. An outdoor enthusiast, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing and ice-skating. She was selected to go to Panama this summer with her school’s ecology club to learn more about the rain forest. She travels to India every summer to visit family and hopes one day to pursue a career in international relations. And yes, she speaks Bengali, the family language spoken by nearly 300 million people across the world (6th ranking among most spoken languages). 

Roy’s father Abhi Roy teaches marketing at the University of Scranton, and mother Mousumi Roy teaches statistics and calculus at Penn State, Washington. 


The first National Spelling Bee was held in 1925 and since then has become one of the largest and well-known educational competitions. And in recent years, Indian American students have begun to steal the show.

In 2010, Anamika Veeramani from Cleveland, Ohio won the Bee by spelling stromuhr correctly. The word denotes an instrument that measures the quantity of blood flows per unit of time through a blood vessel.

This is the fourth year in a row and ninth time in 13 years (see chart) that an Indian American has been declared a Spelling Bee champion, reflecting the dominance of the community students in the competition. 

In 2011, there were many Indians who did well. Arvind Mahankali from New York tied for 3rd place, Dhivya Senthil Murugan tied in the 6th place with Sriram Hathwar and Mashad Arora. And Nabeel Rahman tied with Prakash Mishra for the 10th place. The results were similar to those at the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee when Sameer Mishra correctly spelled guerdon to win. Behind him, finishing second was Sidharth Chand. Kavya Shivashankar took fourth place, and Janhnavi Iyer grabbed the 8th spot. And to think that neither 2011 and 2008 were banner years for Indian Americans—in 2005, the top four finishers were all of Indian descent.


The E.W. Scripps Company declares the purpose of its competition is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.

The company is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio and coordinates the finals, produces word lists and study materials, works with local spelling bee sponsors, and enrolls schools. The local spelling bee sponsors conduct community spelling bee programmes, usually in cooperation with school officials for public, private, parochial, charter, virtual and home schools. The champion of each local spelling bee sponsor’s programme qualifies for participation in the Scripps National Spelling Bee near Washington, D.C. That is where Roy made her mark in June 2011.

June 2011

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