Ever wonder why spelling bees are even possible? Why is it that spelling is so difficult, and requires hours and hours of study to master? How is it that spellers misspell? Don’t most languages have rules that govern their spellings? The answer to that last question is yes, but the key word there is most. English is not one of those languages, because it has a bad habit of stealing words from other languages, tossing them into a big pot, and stirring it all up into a language stew of sorts. Because of this, English has no one set of consistent rules, but is rather governed by many sets of rules, ones particular to the languages it has borrowed from. That’s why the spelling bee question “language of origin?” is so important, and why spellers must study language patterns.

Going back to the stew, I believe that the delicacy that is the English language has one main ingredient - Latin (Greek is a close second). Latin makes up a huge portion of our language’s lexicon, notably influencing the fields of medicine and law, but extending even into words we use every day. Latin and Greek alone constitute the bulk of most spelling bees across the country; in fact, they made up over half of the words in the Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals. Of these two languages, Latin is specifically important because when a speller learns the root words and patterns of Latin, they aren’t just learning Latin. They are learning rules and patterns for not one, not two, not even three, but four other languages, all of which are likely to appear in a typical spelling bee.

These languages are French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. They are known as the Romance languages, and they have nothing to do with love. Their name comes from the fact that they all stem from Latin, which was most widely spoken in the Roman empire. In order to properly envision how these languages relate to each other, picture a large tree with four boughs. The tree at large represents the Romance language family. The four main branches of this tree represent the four languages listed above. Finally, the roots of the tree represent Latin, the mother language from which the branches grew. Now, what does a tree have to do with spelling? It means that Latin roots are evident in all Romance languages, so if a speller masters Latin, they can tackle words of French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese origin with confidence as well!

The occurrence of Latin roots in the Romance languages is exemplified perfectly by the Latin root “manu,” meaning hand. This stem appears in common English words that come directly from Latin, such as manual (done with the hands), manuscript (something handwritten), and even manners. But, there are also words in French where one notices a similar pattern; the words manicure (care of the hands) and maneuver (literally meaning “hand work” in French) both contain the Latin root “manu” for hand! It doesn’t stop there; the Spanish phrase word mano a mano ( literally meaning “hand to hand”), which appeared on the 2018 Scripps preliminary test, also contains this root!

Another universal root for all the Romance languages is “volare,” the Latin verb meaning to fly. This root is often simplified to just “vol.” It can be seen in the Latin-derived English words volant, volition, volatile, and volley. Interestingly enough, it also appears in the Spanish word volador (another name for a flying fish) and the Italian word volante (a musical direction describing a piece played with light rapidity).

My advice to spellers is this: learn lots of Latin words! Grasping these roots and stems early builds a foundation that makes the four other Romance languages much, much easier to master! Train your mind to think about the potential Latin roots behind a word that might have passed through a few other languages besides Latin before being added to the English stew. Thinking beyond a word’s initial origin, down to its deepest roots, can give you an advantage, allowing you to spell words in all the Romance languages with ease!


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