I love watching brilliant kids performing at contests. And, Spelling Competition is one of my favorite shows (no matter which country it's held in).

Check this video.

The kid on fifth minute of the video asks for the origin of the word. And not this kid, I have observed many asking the same. Certainly, it surprises me that they spell toughest words on the basis of their origin.

How does origin help here? In that video, the spelling of the word 'prosaic' is asked and the kid is asking the origin (Latin) and spelling it correctly. Let's guess that the quiz-master said the origin Greek; would have it changed the spelling of the word 'prosaic'?

I'm poor at spelling out the words, I admit! And, I know that the list of advices may go long but then answering here the basic rule and giving out the links will help me. The users here are better in explaining things than books do ;)

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    It's not really an answer, but from my own experience at spelling bees, it can eliminate certain possibilities. For instance, Greek has no exact equivalent for the English letter C, instead using K (kappa) in most situations. Thus, when I was given the word "katabatic", I could have known immediately that it didn't start with C. (Of course, I was 12 at the time, and I didn't think it through completely...) Words of French origin may be more likely to contain silent letters. In the end, though, it does come down to memorization of a list rather than "rules". Apr 17, 2014 at 12:49
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    @JonathanGarber dear friend, this is the part of an answer. These are the clues I'm searching for. I suggest you delete this as a comment and post it as an answer. If not a complete answer, this is not just a comment either!
    – Maulik V
    Apr 17, 2014 at 12:59
  • @JonathanGarber strongly agreed that you should post as an answer!
    – hunter
    Apr 17, 2014 at 12:59
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    It might be worth mentioning that we have no idea when an origin helps, and when it doesn't. If a contestant is unsure, it doesn't cost them anything to ask. As Jonathan says, there may be vital clue, but that doesn't mean there always is.
    – J.R.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 13:41
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    Thinking it over, this question actually isn't really a good fit. As it stands, it's too much of "how do spelling bee contestants do X?" rather than "does language origin affect spelling?" I'll undelete and edit my answer if the question gets updated. (Not intended to be a slight, Maulik, just that I'm thinking it through a little more carefully now that I see my answer in context.) Apr 17, 2014 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


It is because different languages have different rules for how things are spelled. If you have knowledge of the language, you have a good chance of spelling the word correctly, even if you are unfamiliar with it. Of course, wow much this helps depends on the language. Some languages are "more" phonetic than others. I studied Japanese and if you gave me a word and said it came from Japanese, I would almost definitely be able to spell it, even if I had never heard of it before.

As an example, let's say there was a word that end with something that sounded like "each-ee"

If the word came from Italian, I would guess that the ending was spelled "icci".

If it came from Japanese, I would say "ichi"

Romanian, "eci".

Old English? Who knows.

  • Though this does not answer the question, it certainly supports my concern. Thank you!
    – Maulik V
    Apr 18, 2014 at 6:20
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    @MaulikV How does it not answer the question? You asked how it helps and I told you how it helps, and even gave an example.
    – Kevin
    Apr 24, 2014 at 13:09
  • Hey, in your two upvotes, mine is one! :) Check out my answer. Indeed, your answer deserved an upvote.
    – Maulik V
    Apr 24, 2014 at 13:15

Well, I asked my question about how do words' origin helps in making spellings and not whether the contestant heard the spelling properly. If anyone watches that series' videos (or videos of that category), they'll know that in the latter case, contestants asked the quiz-master -could you pronounce it again? or Can you repeat the word please?

Learning etymology also helps in constructing words as mentioned here.

You will be able to construct many English words correctly by learning to put these building blocks together in the proper way.

So again, I am concerned about assuming the spelling on the basis of their origin. Here is what I found which I think is useful for me and others to learn about it. I'm pasting it in-situ so that I don't miss anything from this useful piece of information. The source says the tips are from Merriam-Webster.

Note: As I mentioned in my question, this may not be the complete guide but certainly helpful as a part of the answer. I also learned that after having known the origin of the word, it has to be checked with its pronunciation to guess a perfect spelling. Because these tips first teach about how words' are spelled based on their Latin and Greek origin but after correlating them with their (nuance of?) pronunciations.

Spelling tips for Latin based words

"One of the hardest things to remember about words from Latin is whether an internal consonant (like rr in interrupt) is doubled. To reinforce your memory of the correct spelling, try to remember related words all together (like interrupt along with interruption or necessary along with necessity)."

"The \ü\ sound (as in ooze) is nearly always spelled with u in words from Latin. It typically follows a \d\, \j\, \l\, \r\, or \s\ sound. After other consonants, this sound normally becomes \yü\ (as in bugle, subterfuge, ambiguity, and prosecute and in one pronunciation of refugee)."

"Beware of words like crescent in which the \s\ sound is spelled with sc in words from Latin. Other examples include visceral, discern, discipline, susceptible, and corpuscle."

"A related tip: When you hear within a word from Latin the \s\ sound followed by any of the sounds of e (long, short, or schwa), there’s a possibility that the \s\ sound is spelled with c as in exacerbate, access, adjacent, condolences, facetious, and necessary."

"The letter i is a vowel often used to connect two Latin word elements. If the connecting vowel sound is a schwa (\ə) and you must guess at the spelling of this sound, the letter i might be a good guess: See carnivore and herbivore. Other examples include non–study-list words that end in iform such as oviform and pediform."

"The letter k rarely appears in words from Latin, and its sound is nearly always represented by c as in canary, prosaic, canine, mediocre, Capricorn, cognition, ductile, incorruptible, vernacular, innocuous, and many other words on the list."

"The letter x often gets the pronunciation \gz\ in words from Latin (as in exacerbate and exuberant)."

"The combination ious ends many adjectives of Latin origin. When the consonant that precedes ious is c or t, the sound of the final syllable is \shəs\ as in precocious, facetious, ostentatious, and pernicious. It is important to keep in mind that several adjectives from Latin ending with this sound end in eous rather than ious. In such instances, the definitions of the words usually contain phrases such as “consisting of,” “resembling,” or “having the characteristic of.” Examples include non–studylist words herbaceous, cetaceous, and lilaceous."

Spelling tips for Greek based words

"In a few words from Greek, e appears at the end of a word and has long e sound \ē\: Some examples are acme, apostrophe, and hyperbole."

"A \k\ sound in English often represents a sound from Greek that we don't actually use, and the most common spelling of this sound in English is ch: See anachronism, arachnid, character, chronic, chronology, dichotomy, hierarchy, matriarch, melancholy, patriarch, synchronous, notochord, tachometer, and gynarchy."

"The most frequent sound that y gets in words from Greek is short i (\i) as in acronym, calypso, cryptic, cynical, dyslexia, eponym, homonym, myriad, Olympian, synchronous, synergy, synonym, synopsis, syntax, symbiosis and polymer."

"A long i sound (\ī) in a word that comes from Greek is sometimes represented by y, especially after h, as in hydraulic, hydrology, hygiene, hyperbole, hyphen, hypothesis, dynamic, cynosure, gynarchy, xylophone and pyre."

"In ancient Greek, the letter phi (pronounced \fī) represented a breathy or "aspirated" version of the sound that is represented in English by f. Speakers of Roman-alphabet languages did not have this sound or a corresponding letter, so they substituted the \f\ sound but memorialized the original sound of phi by using ph to spell it. As a result, the English \f\ sound almost always appears as ph in words of Greek origin. Consider, for example: amphibious, apostrophe, cacophony, diphthong, epiphany, euphemism, hyphen, metamorphosis, metaphor, periphery, phenomenon, philanthropy, philately, philhellenism, spherical, topography, xylophone, and zephyr. Hundreds of words in English derived from Greek show this spelling."

"The letter o is the vowel most often used to connect two Greek word elements. If the connecting vowel sound is a schwa (\ə) as in xylophone, notochord, orthodox, ergonomic, geoponics, and asthmogenic and you must guess at the spelling of this sound, the letter o is a very good guess. The non–study-list words hypnotist, geometric, and electrolyte are among the many, many words made of Greek word elements connected by o."

"The \j\ sound is always spelled with g in words from Greek. Why? When the \j\ sound appears in words of Greek origin, it does so as an anglicized pronunciation of a root originally pronounced with a hard g. Note that no j appears in any of the words on this list!"

"A schwa in words from Greek is occasionally spelled with y: See analysis, etymology, misogynist, odyssey, and zephyr."

[I disagree with Jonathan Garber over his answer as much as I agree with him over his comment! Because in comment, he really got what I asked but while exploring the answer, (probably) he felt heading somewhere else and deleted it. I firmly believe that that answer of him was very likely to get good responses by learned users here as healthy talks in their comments. Probably hunter would agree on this. Never mind, I thank him for whatever input he gave. It is very useful.]

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