“The important thing to know about spelling is that it’s not just rote memorization,” says Ananya Vinay, champion of the 2017 Scripps US National Spelling Bee, who will ceremonially open this year’s bee next week. While Vinay uses flashcards to study specific words, she says the real trick is learning where different words come from.
English spelling is mostly ambiguous because it borrows words from so many other languages. Each of those languages has more reliable spelling rules. So to spell a word, you want to know its origin. (In the bee, contestants may request a word’s origin, as well as its definition, part of speech, and use in a sentence.)
Most of the time that origin is Latin or Greek. Those two languages make up 60% of English, says Vinay. When you know a word is Latinate, you know to look out for doubled consonants near the beginning of the word. Italian, the modern language closest to Latin, also uses double letters; Vinay loves the word cappuccino.
French comes with surprising silent letters, like the t in escargot, or the z in assoilzie, a word meaning “absolve or acquit” that went from French to Scottish to English while still sounding like a French word: “ah-soil-ee.”
German has its own quirks: A sh sound in a germanic word might be spelled sch, and German is behind English’s infuriating “I before E” rules: In German, ie and ei always mean two different sounds. One helpful mnemonic (which we didn’t get from 13-year-old Vinay) is that wein rhymes with wine, and bier is just like beer.
English words with Asian origins are mercifully phonetic, as are Spanish words. Some anglicized vowel sounds might trip you up, but you’re less likely to run into silent letters.
Vinay uses study app Quizlet (whose representative put us in touch with Vinay) to go through her flashcards. She’s released two study sets for beginners and for advanced spellers on the site. (Previous Scripps champions can’t compete again, so now Vinay coaches her school’s team.) She likes sorting her words into lists of specific language origins. The app tracks her mistakes so she can come back to problem words. “I could do 600 words in an hour if I wanted to,” she tells us.
Why learn spelling when your computer can do it for you with dotted red lines? Because learning about words and languages means learning history and mythology: Vinay excitedly tells Lifehacker about Latinate words like “narcissist,” named after the tragic son of a nymph and a river god who fell in love with his own reflection and drowned.
Vinay says spelling has helped her in other studies and academic competitions, like debate and history classes. In the Science Bowl, she can identify names of minerals, chemicals, or species by recognising the root words. She can see the connections between concepts, and how those concepts spread and evolved. Spelling isn’t trivia — it’s a record of human history.