DICTEE COMPETITIONS. In her article, Lauren Collins details the difficulties presented in French by homophones. She gives this example: vert (“green), verre (“glass”), ver (“worm”), vers (toward”), and vair (“squirrel fur”) all have the same pronunciation, as do the plurals of them. In my high school French classes, we did exercises, called dictees, in which the teacher read a passage in French aloud, and we wrote the words down in French as best we could.

I often post on different competitions that people have invented, such as Irish road bowling, played with a real cannonball since the 1600’s (see here). Collins writes about the Dicos d’Or, “a live televised tournament in which contestants vied to transcribe most accurately a dictated text—the Super Bowl of orthography”.

Collins tells how this competition came to be invented. The poet Prosper Merimee was hanging around on a rainy day in Fontainebleau with the Empress Eugenie, the wife of the Emperor Napoleon III, and other grandees. The Empress asked Merimee to devise an entertainment. Merimee came up with the first dictee.

Collins also tells the results of that first competition: Out of 169 words, Napoleon III made 75 mistakes, Eugenie made 62, Alexandre Dumas made 24—and Prince Metternich of Austria made only 3 (!).

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