Why the Alphabet is so Important

The ‘f’ sound can be spelled in a variety of ways: f, ph, gh, ff, v, pf. Some of these are more mundane than others but this list is definitely not a complete list. This isn’t just limited to this one consonant sound. The ‘k’ sound can be spelled with a k, c, ch, ck, cc, cch, kh, and so on and so forth. But why are there so many different ways to spell the same sound? 

The answer lies within the alphabet. 

The modern English alphabet (the one we use with 26 letters) is a derivative of a Latin alphabet. This was originally used in Rome, however, this alphabet was based on a very visually similar alphabet utilized by the Etruscans- a civilization that was located in Italy. Prior to the Etruscans, this alphabet was actually derived from a version of the Greek alphabet used by the inhabitants of a few Greek colonies in southern Italy. In turn, the Greek alphabet was descended from the Phoenician alphabet- an alphabet that only had consonants.

File:Phoenician alphabet.svg - Wikimedia Commons
The Phoenician Alphabet and its English counterparts.

While Phoenician was based on hieroglyphics- the writing system used by the Egyptians- it had a very key difference. The letters represented sounds and not words. The other major types of writing were primarily symbolic and were far more complicated to learn. An example of a modern-day language that uses a symbolic script is Chinese, as each symbol represents a word or idea.

This marked a pivotal change in the societies that ended up incorporating variations of the Phoenician script. It became easier for the ‘common-folk’ to learn or figure out how to write with the script. The simplicity of only having 22 symbols and sounds to memorize was far easier and cheaper than either having to pay a professional to read and write for you or learning it yourself. Slowly, literacy began to improve, aided by a script that made reading and writing far easier than it had been before.

But, we still haven’t answered the question of why there are so many different ways to spell the same sound. This answer is found a few thousand years after the Phoenicians. 

All of the languages that I mentioned continued to develop through the ages and a few have stagnated or died out. Latin, however, is a very important one. At the peak of the Roman Empire, it reached all the way up to Britain, or Albion as it was known then. The Latin alphabet was used throughout Europe and to the place where it never really stuck, the Phoenician and Greek alphabets held influence. In the modern-day, almost all of the nations and languages that are spoken in Europe use a variation of the Latin Alphabet.

Western Romance languages - Wikipedia
Romance language family tree

English, though it is a Germanic language, has had great amounts of influence by both Latin and French (both of which are Romance languages.) Romance languages, despite the name, are actually languages that are descended from Latin. Among them are Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, etc. This is exemplified in the sheer number of Latin words in English (there are 4 in this sentence itself.)

As one of the most spoken languages in the world, as well as the main language of one of the nations that once was a very prolific colonizer, English has had great reach to almost all corners of the world. While the languages that are spoken in Europe share an alphabet, languages in the Americas, in India, in Japan, in Vietnam, in Thailand, etc. do not have similar alphabets at all. This creates a dichotomy where words from languages with similar alphabets are faithfully translated into English whereas more ‘exotic’ words are often simplified into their phonetic spelling in the majority of cases.

File:Origins of English PieChart.svg
Rough distribution of foreign language influence on English- a note, “Latin” includes words that are used in primarily scientific senses.

This mishmash of languages that English has cobbled together through its many years of existence is unique in the fact that it already had the infrastructure to incorporate a very different language into itself, nearly seamlessly from when Britain was invaded by the Normans. Spellings were preserved then and they remain preserved for the most part, even now. 

The motley of letter combinations that make up English are a unique effort that the language has made to preserve the original spellings of words. Without the ability of these alphabets to so quickly adapt to variety of sounds, it is very likely that English never would’ve been able to accumulate such a variety of words.

The Cost of Spelling Bees

Preparing and participating in spelling bees can take numerous hours and large amounts of money throughout the years of preparation. This often is overlooked by the population that is able to participate in spelling bee’s competitively because it is a truth that they are overwhelmingly a part of higher than average socioeconomic classes.

While some people will cite that other activities can be drains for money and that nobody seems to care that they cost a lot- sports and music being examples- this is not about those activities. Words and languages are things that should be widely accessible to those that wish to learn about them. And the fact that other activities cost more money is a form of whataboutism that doesn’t do anything to account for the disparities in education that differing income levels can yield.

According to an article by TIME, a Utah survey reported that parents spend about $2,300 on sports an year. This is a relevant statistic. Barring lacrosse and hockey, the maximum amount spent on a sport was about $6,000-$9,000. The average cost of a music lesson is about $50-$80 dollars, according to this website. The average musician doesn’t have too high costs to purchase a singular instrument. Both of these are lower than the average cost of a lesson for a speller.

I believe that the ability to pay in order to receive a higher standard of learning is something that acts as a roadblock to those that are not able to access the same resources and that it is important that this issue be addressed.

While it is a little difficult to identify the cost of spelling accurately for everyone, I have done my best to provide an estimate. All of these numbers are as accurate as possible and they will vary depending on whether a student is coached or not.

Cost of Coaching
I chose to exclude the names of individual coaches but I have instead included them as numbers. These numbers were all found online through search engines and are as accurate as the websites that I found them on.

From a vast amount of research here are the rates of some coaches that I was able to find.

$215/hour (14 coaches)
$100/hour (2 coaches)

Average: $150
Median: $215

$75/hour (2 coaches)
$50/hour (2 coaches)
$25/hour (2 coaches)

Range: $25-$215

A small note, the cost of coaching from any one person does not at all correlate to the quality of coaching service.

The table below represents a weekly schedule of one class using the average cost per hour of coaching ($150) in a continuous year of coaching. I will approximate 50 weeks of coaching (allowing for vacations as well as missed lessons)

Years1 Coach/student2 Coaches/student
1 year$7,500$15,000
2 years$15,000$30,000
3 years$22,500$45,000
4 years$30,000$60,000
5 years$37,500$75,000
Average cost of coaching (may vary depending on coach)

While most people do have one coach- and not all spellers will be paying $150- it is in the ballpark range of how much coaching can cost a family. While I’m not disparaging either those that choose to go this route in terms of the amount they charge or even those that choose to pay, I want to call attention to the fact that spellers that are not able to pay these fees are often unable to keep up.

To those that may say that coaching is unnecessary- this is a patently untrue statement in the majority of cases. Spelling bees require a large investment of time and discipline, and it is difficult for young children to achieve this on their own. Parents that may have long work schedules are not able to provide the hours to aid students.

In this day and age, as spelling bees have grown increasingly competitive and the word difficulty has skyrocketed, many people rightfully feel that coaches are necessary to guide them in achieving their goals.

The Cost of Preparatory Material
The next cost that I have factored in is (sometimes) one off costs for preparatory materials as sifting through all 476,000+ words of the dictionary is a daunting task for anyone. These aid students in preparing for spelling bees by guiding them towards wordlists that are specifically honed. Some of these I have used, and others I haven’t used, but I’m mostly angling for an estimate.

Words of Wisdom: $46.00
Unabridged Dictionary: $30 per year
Blitz: $79 x3
Ementor: $219*
New Nat’s: $175 x4
Ementor: $219*
Verbomania: $99 x3
Words from the Champs: $30.00
How to Spell Like a Champ: $11.60
SpellPundit Annual Fee: $600
*Not factored into cost

The Cost of Preparatory Material

50 + (30*5) + 80*3 + 175*4 + 100*3 + 35 + 12 + 600*5= $4,500 (approximately)
Again, not everyone is paying this much, but the sheer cost of preparatory material is another barrier that impedes those that are unable to pay for them.

The Cost of Nationals
Now that you’ve got to Nationals, the costs don’t end there. While you can stay at nearby hotels, the cost of transportation makes up for the money saved and hotels in the region will often cost similar enough amounts.

Cost of Attending Nationals:
$400 per night (generally 5 nights)
$30 in food per day
$250 in travel per person
$60 with each additional member of the family for events
$125 for the banquet dinner
$100 in miscellaneous costs

400*5 + 30*5 + 250*4 + 60*2 + 125 + 100 = around $3200

Barring, if you did choose to RSVBee to participate at Nationals, there is an additional cost (which, once again is a barrier to low income students that want to participate in nationals)

RSVBee: $1500

A caveat, many qualifying spelling bees do pay some amount of money, but this is rarely consistent. This doesn’t account for those that qualify through the RSVBee program.

In summary, the cost of spelling bees are a barrier that disallow students that are unable to pay these amounts to receive equal opportunities in spelling bees. Even if one ignores the cost of coaching (perhaps 3 years of one coach- 22.5k), each visit to Scripps can cost upwards of 3,000 dollars.

However, for many, the costs often are outweighed by the benefits of coaching and the results that it can yield. This a not a piece claiming that either the coaching system is bad or that I am disparaging it- it is merely to bring attention to the fact that such obstacles do exist.

Word Lists + Any Way That I can Feasibly Help
I will admit that I have been able to afford coaching and materials as well as attending Scripps without any significant worry for the cost of them.

I want to make Spelling Bees and preparation more accessible for students that may not be able to afford such exorbitant costs for numerous materials. I will be taking commissions for generating wordlists as long as they are not too excessive and not too frequent at absolutely no cost. They will be posted up on my website as I receive requests. The guidelines are below. You can reach out to me through my email: siyona39@gmail.com or through the contact form on this website.

Guidelines for Requesting a Word List (please follow these so that I will be able to complete them)

– Describe the topic in as much detail as you would like and you will receive a word list with an equal amount of detail (ex: Latin words, flower words, words with roots in them, medical words, animal words)

-Indicate the level of difficulty you want them to be (School Level, County Level, Regional Level, National Level, Night Finals+)

– I will be generating lists up to 100 words.

– They will strictly be words only. I will not be providing definitions etc.

-Expect a turnaround time of a week from when I respond to the request.

Furthermore, feel free to reach out to me if you want any free resources such as Paideia, CWL, Root Word lists, etc. if you have been unable to find them.