Knowing the origin of words is of vital importance for a good speller. Several internationally acclaimed spelling lists have their words divided into sections on the basis of the language of origin. The purpose of being acquainted with the language of origin is to aid you to remember several important rules, tips and guidelines for successfully spelling words.

According to Richard Nordquist, a professor of English and an about.com guide, ‘etymology’ refers to a word’s origin and historical development. This includes its earliest known use, its transmission from one language to another, and its changes in form and meaning. Etymology is also the term for the branch of linguistics that studies word histories. Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons.

Dr Nordquist gives an interesting example of how the word ‘disaster’ originated. In the olden times people believed that the influence of stars was responsible for all calamities. Thus, the word can be traced back to the Old Italian word disastro, which meant “unfavourable to one’s stars”. Disaster first appeared in English in the late 16th century, and Shakespeare soon used it in his tragic play King Lear.

Disaster’s Latin root word, astrum, also appears in our modern “star” word astronomy. With the negative Latin prefix dis- (“apart”) added to astrum (“star”), the word (in Latin, Old Italian, and Middle French) conveyed the idea that a catastrophe could be traced to the “evil influence of a star or planet”.

Experts have recorded that English has borrowed words from more than 300 different languages around the world but most of the vocabulary of the English language can be attributed to Latin and Greek.

The Latin influence

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Spell It!, Latin has had the greatest influence on the English language as it had been the language of culture, religion, education and science in the Western world.

There are some nuances particular to Latin originated words for example words like crescent in which the ‘s’ sound is spelt with ‘sc’. Other examples include visceral, discern and discipline. When you hear within a word from Latin the ‘s’ sound followed by any of the sounds of ‘e’ ‘ there’s a possibility that the ‘s’ sound is spelled with c as in exacerbate, access, adjacent, condolences and facetious.

The Greek influence

The Greek influence is tremendous as the ancient Greeks provided the foundation for many important ways of looking at the world and for living in society that are still important today. Scientists still turn to Greek when they need a word to describe something newly created or discovered.

In a few words from Greek, ‘e’ appears at the end of a word and has long ‘e’ sound like in ‘acme’, ‘apostrophe’ and ‘hyperbole’.

The most frequent sound that ‘y’ gets in words from Greek is short ‘i’ as in acronym, calypso, cryptic, cynical, dyslexia, etc. In ancient Greek, the letter ‘phi’ is pronounced as what is ‘f’ in English. That is the reason why ‘f’ sound almost always appears as ph in words of Greek origin like ‘amphibious’, ‘apostrophe’, ‘cacophony’, ‘diphthong’, etc.

The French influence

Before modern English, French — a direct offshoot of Latin — was widely spoken in the British Isles, as a result of the conquest of Britain by France in 1066. French has many different vowel sounds and diphthongs that are distinctly French, but it has only the same 26 letters to spell them with that English has.

French nearly always spells the ‘sh’ sound with ‘ch’, and this spelling of the sound is very common in words from French.

Chagrin, chauvinism and crochet are examples. A word from French ending with a stressed ‘et’ is usually spelled with ‘ette’ as in croquette and layette. A long ‘e’ sound at the end of a word from French can be spelled with ‘ie’ as in ‘prairie’ and ‘sortie’.

Words ending with an ‘zh’ sound are common in French. This sound is spelled age as in ‘collage’, ‘mirage’, ‘dressage’, ‘garage’ and ‘barrage’. A ‘k’ sound at the end of a word from French is often spelled ‘que’ as in ‘mystique’, ‘boutique’ and ‘physique’.

The German influence

English and German are in the same language family. According to Merriam Webster’s Spell it!, there are a few clues which can identify a word to be of German origin. The letter ‘z’ is far more common in German than in English. Note that its pronunciation is not usually the same as English ‘z’. When it follows a ‘t’, which is common, the pronunciation is ‘s’ as in ‘spritz’, ‘pretzel’ and ‘seltzer’. The letter ‘w’ is properly pronounced as ‘v’ in German, as you hear in one pronunciation of ‘edelweiss’.

Old English influence

When we say ‘Old English’ we are talking about the language spoken in Britain before the French arrived in 1066. While the English language has kept picking things that it has found useful, it has also discarded things which were considered redundant. We find Old English words having double consonants following short vowels, especially if the vowel is in a stressed syllable.

Examples include ‘quell’, ‘paddock’, ‘mattock’, ‘sallow’, ‘fennel’, ‘hassock’ and ‘errand’. Long ‘e’ at the end of an adjective or adverb from Old English is nearly always spelt with ‘y’. Examples include ‘dreary’, ‘watery’, ‘windily’, ‘creepy’, ‘daily’, ‘stringy’, ‘timely’ and ‘womanly’.

The Arabic influence

Some words have been borrowed from the rich Arabic language for something that was either unheard of in English or did not possess a name. Other Arabic words have travelled through other languages on the way. According to Spell It double consonants are often seen in words from Arabic. More often than not, they occur in the middle of a word as in ‘mummy’, ‘cotton’, and ‘henna’. A typical word in Arabic has three consonant sounds, with or without vowels between them: ‘Gazelle’, ‘safari’, ‘talc’ and ‘carafe’ are typical examples.

The Asian influence

When the British began to trade with the Indian subcontinent and the Far East, it was necessary to find words for many foods, plants, animals, clothing and events. Some Asian influenced words include ‘dugong’, ‘guru’, ‘jungle’, ‘nirvana’, ‘bangle’, ‘cummerbund’, ‘mahatma’, etc.

These are merely a few rules of each language. Referring to websites like the Merriam Webster’s Spell It! will help give you a thorough insight into etymology and will prove worthwhile in championing your word list.

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