Spelling and Word Origin

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A reader wonders how knowing a word’s origin helps spelling bee contestants arrive at the correct spelling:

Recently, I was watching [a spelling bee] competition and students were asking about the origin of a spelling like Latin, French, Greek, Dutch, Italian etc. and were guessing correct spellings. How is it possible to get correct spelling from the origin of a word?

One of the greatest strengths of English is its huge vocabulary, much of it borrowed from other languages.

Because different languages have different spelling conventions, knowing an English word’s foreign origin can sometimes–not always–provide assistance in spelling it.

English is spoken with about 46 speech sounds. Some of the sounds, like /b/ and /p/ are always represented by the same letter. Other sounds, like /f/ and /s/, may be represented by different letters or combinations of letters.

For example, the sound /f/ may be spelled with the letter f as in reflex, or with the combination ph as in gramophone. The sound /s/ may be represented by the letter s, the letter c, or the combination sc, as in instant, cigar, and abscess. The sound /k/ may be spelled with the letters k, c or the combinations ck and ch: kitten, cat, luck, archetype.

A spelling bee contestant’s first encounter with a word is its pronunciation. Knowing how sounds are spelled in the parent language can lead a speller to the correct combination of letters used to spell it in English.

Take for example, the words candidate and chronology. Both begin with the /k/ sound. Knowing that candidate entered the language from Latin tells the speller to spell the sound with the letter c; knowing that chronology comes from Greek is a clue that the /k/ sound is spelled with the combination ch.

Here are a few of the spelling clues offered by etymology with words of Latin and Greek origin:

canine, lactate, abduct
The /k/ sound is usually represented by the letter c in a word of Latin origin.

abscess, ascend, eviscerate
The internal /s/ sound is often spelled sc in a word of Latin origin.

NOTE: one speech sound used to speak English is called the schwa. The schwa is an indeterminate vowel sound that may be represented by any of the vowel letters a, e, i/y, o, or u. For example, the schwa sound is represented in the following words by the letters in boldface: America, synthesis, decimal, syringe, offend, circus, supply.

When a schwa sound follows the /s/ sound in a word of Latin origin, the /s/ sound is often represented by the letter c, as in necessary. However, if the schwa sound connects two Latin elements, it is often spelled with the letter i, as in carnivore.

amygdala, dyslogia, symbiosis
The short i sound is often represented by the letter y in a word of Greek origin.

anthropomorphic, philander, graphology
The /f/ sound is often represented by ph in a word of Greek origin.

rhinovirus, hemorrhage, rheumatism
The /r/ sound is often represented by rh in a word of Greek origin.

anarchy, bacchanal, chronometry
The /k/ sound is often represented by ch in a word of Greek origin.

xylophone, Xena, xenophopia
The /z/ sound is often represented by x in a word of Greek origin.

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5 thoughts on “Spelling and Word Origin”

  1. Those who like to explore this and similar topics in depth should subscribe to Kelvin Stroud’s fascinating and free podcast, The History of English:

    The fact that 374 of its 392 ratings are 5-star and that most of the rest are 4-star hints at just how good it is.

  2. Many time the long ī sound is shown by y in Greek words as well … gyno-.

    That English often does not make the spelling of foreign words conform to English sounds for letters is a big mistake and leads to much muddling and many misspellings. In Spanish, ‘photo is ‘foto’. There is utterly no need to write ‘ph’ for ‘f’. Fantasy was once spelt ‘phantasy’. There has been no loss by changing the spelling to ‘fantasy’.

    English is in strong need of spelling reform. It is senseless to write thru as t-h-r-o-u-g-h.

  3. Hi AnWulf,
    The word through is spelled how it is for many different reasons. Old English gave it root ‘thurh’ and German gave it ‘durch’ and there was Dutch and English thrown in later. Many languages have more intricate spelling patterns, such as Yiddish.

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