Marilyn Michalls, a retired 31-year elementary school teacher, described English as a "hodgepodge" with traces and/or influences from numerous other languages.
Thirty-nine students from 17 elementary and middle schools in Leavenworth County will attempt Friday afternoon to summon that knowledge in front of friends, families, judges and fellow contestants in the 54th edition of the countywide spelling bee.
"The kids have to have a real broad base of knowledge of the English language," said Michalls, who finished her long teaching career in the Basehor-Linwood School District and is the countywide spelling bee coordinator.
The Leavenworth Area Retired School Personnel Association is sponsoring the bee, slated to begin at 1 p.m. Friday at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge No. 55, 300 S. 20 St., in Leavenworth. The contestant pool will be narrowed as rounds progress, until first-, second- and third-place winners are determined.
The Leavenworth Times provides a $100 prize for first place, the School Personnel Association provides $50 for second place and the Kiwanis Club of Lansing provides a dictionary/thesaurus for third place.
But, more is at stake than prizes.
Michalls said the county's top two finishers advance to the state spelling bee March 8 in Hays. The state champion advances to the national championship in May in Washington, D.C.
The fifth- through eighth-grade competitors in Friday's county spelling bee are the best of the best, having placed at the top in individual bees earlier this school year at their respective schools.
Michalls said the countywide bee goes on for as many rounds as needed to name winners. Last year's bee went more than 15 rounds before winners were able to separate from the pack.
"That depends on how good of spellers we have," she said. "(Words) can start out fairly easy, then they get harder."
A notable returning speller in this year's competition is Sterling Hollond, a Basehor-Linwood Middle School seventh-grader. As a sixth-grader, Hollond finished first in last year's county spelling bee and went on to win the Kansas championship.
More than 100 people, or "standing room only," have attended the bee in most years, Michalls said, and tension can build as rounds — and the stakes — add up.
"I would imagine that it does," she said of competitors' nerves being tested. "You can kind of see it on there faces at times."