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 it’s 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.

2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee- Preliminary Written Round

So, quick breakdown of the format is 12 Offlist spelling questions, then 12 vocabulary questions followed by two more vocabulary questions.

Spelling

  1. Grok (Literary term from Stranger in a Strange Land)
  2. Dissilient (Latin!)
  3. Sciapodous (Greek! Scia= Shadow + Pod= foot. I believe in one of the Chronicles of Narnia books there was a bunch of dwarve-like beings that had the one foot and used it as an umbrella/shade)
  4. Rucervine (Latin again? Rusa + Cervus= Rucervus (deer))
  5. Epollicate (Another Latin! E= without + Pollex= thumb)
  6. Indiscerptible (Latin once more In= not+ discerpere= tear apart)
  7. Sobornost (Russian)
  8. Passim (Latin, seriously?
  9. Avoirdupois (French- Avoir du Pois it’s pretty standard)
  10. Zuppa Inglese (Italian yum!)
  11. Diel (Latin- It’s the last finally. Di/a= day)
  12. Ljubljana (Of course they needed one Geo word from Yugoslavia)
Summary: 6 Latin Words, 1 Greek, 1 French, 1 Italian, 1 Literary, 1 Russian, 1 Geographical
There were a lot more Latin words than I thought there would be and a lot less Greek works than I expected. This list was 75% Romance Language words!!
VOCAB
  1. Flak- criticism (slang!)
  2. Restive- fidgety (This was a trick question!)
  3. Exculpatory- vindicate (ex= remove, culp= blame)
  4. Raise Cain- to cause a commotion (Scripps even tweeted about this! Biblical references/slang)
  5. Ailurophile- lover of cats, has a bunch of kittens (ailuro= cats, phile= love)
  6. Megillah- long involved story (Some Biblical references just like 4/slang)
  7. Pyrosis- heartburn (pyr= fire, osis= condtion)
  8. Haymaker- punch (this is a bit slangy)
  9. Cyclopean- massive, huge (Greek myths!)
  10. Tritaph- tomb with 3 chambers (Tri= three+ taph= tomb, think epitaph)
  11. Manque- unsuccessful, frustrated (manquer= to lack)
  12. Dianoia- opiniona (dia= through, noia (noos)- to think/mind)
Summary: 2 Latin, 5 Greek, 1 French, 3 Slang,  1 Yiddish/Hebrew
The amount of Greek in this round made up for the others. And also, are we seeing a trend towards the inclusion of more slang/literary terms?
EXTRA VOCAB
  1. Verso- left handed side (Latin, page being turned)
  1. Dromomania- wandering (Greek, dromo= run, wander, mania= obsession with)

 

The preliminary test was a bit on the easier side this year so I’m predicting a cutoff around 26-28 overall.

 

 

Spelling Withdrawals Pt.4 – A Month Later

A Month Later:

It was really late in the night and I was staring a bit blearily at the computer. I wasn’t sure what had given me the idea to start a blog about spelling but here I was, staring at a skeleton of a website, toggling around with colors, fonts, themes, layouts, everything. I was tossing ideas around my head debating what exactly I would be writing about.

How should I start, should I be writing about roots, languages, I mean there’s so much stuff. It then it struck me, the one question and its many variations that so many people had asked me throughout my years as a speller.

“So, why do you do spelling. It’s just a bunch of words that you’re probably never even going to use. I mean there’s autocorrect if you don’t know how to spell a word.”

Well, first of all, I’m definitely a foodie, and knowing those words has kept me from stumbling over names of some of my favorite dishes. Roots, words, language patterns all help me when I’m Also, autocorrect is so buggy most of the time and just because it’s there does not mean you have to use it. I mean, if you’ve learned how to bike, you don’t keep the training wheels on just because they exist.

“What’s the secret to memorizing all of those words? Do you just look at them over and over until you know them by heart? That’s so boring.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I definitely did not memorize that many words. Of course, there are the really weird ones that nobody really gets and that you absolutely have to know. The only other things I’ve ever memorized were language patterns and roots, which were total lifesavers.

Words have always been quite enchanting. They’re completely made up but once they’ve entered a language they take on a life of their own, becoming completely new entities that take on any purpose people want them to. English as a language has become particularly adept at utilizing and incorporating ideas from other languages while at least attempting to preserve its original sounds.