Can learning word origins help us spell?

For whatever reason, the spelling bee has never quite taken off on these shores. While Americans seem to lap it up, precocious children spelling obscure words out loud is something that doesn’t seem to appeal to British audiences.

Those who have never watched a spelling bee may not realise that competitors are not simply given a word with no context and expected to spell it. They are allowed to ask for a little bit of help.

When given the word, spelling bees can ask for its definition, or for it to be used in a sentence. Also, they can request the word’s origin, and it’s often this piece of information that helps them have an accurate stab at spelling an obscure word.

English is a mishmash of languages and almost all of its words are borrowed from elsewhere. According to a study, Latin and French each account for the origin of 29% of English words, and a further 26% have Germanic roots. This means that only 16% of the words we use come from outside of these three major language groups.

It’s said that learning Latin helps people improve their all-round language skills, since it’s the starting point of so many languages. Most of us did at least a bit of French at school, and will probably be aware that English words ending in suffixes like -ment, -age and -ure are likely to be of French origin.

Another 6% of words in our language derive from Greek, and these tend to be more unusually spelt but still recognisable. Imagine you had never heard the words ‘xylophone’ and ‘psychology’ before – would you ever have guessed that they began with an X and a P? You might have done if you knew they were of Greek origin and had some knowledge of the language.

A basic understanding of foreign languages and how they have infiltrated English can give you a real head start in spelling. Another way to achieve this is to sign up for our Freelance Writing for Businesses or Business Blogging for Beginners diploma courses, both available at discounted prices.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web

Latest posts by John Murray (see all)

Categories: Writing

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