“Bouillabaisse”, “Scherenschnitte,” and “Rhodochrosite.”
All three of the words above can be found in nearly any English dictionary, but they probably don’t look familiar upon first glance. While words like these do not typically pop-up in normal conversations, they recently made an appearance on national television during finals of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Spelling Bees are well-known throughout the United States as a platform for students, usually aged 9 to 14, to test their vocabulary knowledge by spelling words onstage in front of a large audience. These young competitors could encounter any word from the English language, but the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of which word they will face when they step-up to the microphone: will it be a common word, or something a little more intimidating, such as “pyrrhuloxia”?
Since there are over a million English words listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is very likely that students at an advanced spelling level are asked to spell words that they have never before seen or heard. If you’ve never seen the word before, how could you possibly know how to spell it?
Your first instinct might be to spell the word the same way that it sounds.This can be helpful at times, but there are many English words that are not spelled phonetically (take for example “gnome”, “tsunami”, or “psychology”).
During a Spelling Bee, competitors are allowed to ask a few questions about their word, such as its definition or how it would be used in a sentence, but the most insightful question of them all is the language of origin. It is very common for languages to adopt specific vocabulary from other languages, and English is no exception. By knowing the language that an English word originated from, spellers have a better chance of identifying special patterns from that language, especially if they have dedicated time to learning bits and pieces of foreign languages.
Learning German, for example, could be immensely helpful when faced with a word like “Gummihandschuh.” This word means rubber glove, but a literal German-English translation of this word is “Rubber-hand-shoe.” The German language is notorious for mashing numerous root words together to create one massive, compound word. By knowing the definition and recognizing the root words that make-up a compound word like this, a speller has a much higher chance of spelling a German word correctly.
Another helpful tidbit of knowledge comes with knowing which letters of the alphabet are exceptionally common in each language. Latin and Greek are the two most common languages of origin referenced during the spelling bees, but a very interesting distinction can be made between these languages in regard to the letter “k.” In a Latin-derived word, you would rarely ever find a word that contains the letter “k.” This is very useful with a word like “hippocrepiform’, since it is much more likely that the /k/ sound is represented by the letter “c.” On the other hand, Greek-derived words are significantly more likely to utilize the letter“k,” which could make all the difference between spelling a word correctly or incorrectly.
Every word that composes the English language has a history behind it, and its spelling often reflects the characteristics of its original language. Whether you are a champion speller or just beginning to learn a new language, you may find your English spelling skills improving when you learn a new language.