Don’t know how to spell clafouti? Don’t feel bad. Nearly 1 in 5 words misspelled in the final rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is derived from the French language.
The odds are worse if the word has a Latin (27%) or ancient Greek (21%) origin. But what surprised Julie Hansen, the U.S. chief executive of the language learning company Babbel, is the difficulty spellers have with modern languages, like French, German and Italian, despite their ubiquity across cultures. Latin and ancient Greek are considered dead languages, unlike French, which is the fifth most spoken.
“We have a lot of exposure to those words,” Hansen said. “And a lot of young spellers study other languages.”
Babbel partnered with Merriam-Webster, the official word source for the National Spelling Bee, to analyze 10 years of words that knocked contestants out of the final rounds. This year’s bee, featuring 565 competitors, will begin Monday in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. The final competition will be broadcast on ESPN on May 30. The winner earns $50,000 and a trophy, among other prizes.
In all, 398 words were examined, including clafouti, a baked fruit dessert. But there were others that gave pause, too. Take hallenkirche, for example, a word derived from German that describes a certain style of Gothic church. (It is pronounced HALL’-en-keer-sheh.) Or réseau (pronounced ray-zoh), which is a group of meteorological stations.
“That doesn’t sound like that would be too hard to spell,” Hansen said. “But, clearly, it is.”
Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said words derived from Latin and ancient Greek rank highest in misspelling because there are more of them.
“They are there by the law of averages,” he said. “There are more of those words to begin with.”
In 2009, for instance, crystosphene (derived from Greek) and fodient (from Latin) gave spellers fits. In 2010, ostrichism was a triple threat. It describes a form of self-delusion and combines elements of Latin and Greek that later passed through the French language before ending up as an English word.
There are other oddities. Words descended from Old or Middle English account for 2% of errors in the final rounds.
Sokolowski said that Anglicization of words happens over time. The newer the word adopted into the English language, the more it is spelled and pronounced like the original. That is why many competitors in spelling bees seek to learn German and French.
“Spellers are aware of the ancient languages, like Latin and Greek,” he said. “It is the modern languages that trip them up.”
He added: “We are more sensitive as a culture to the original forms of words we get to experience. That is human progress. We are aware of more people.”
It is why spellers, too, ask for pronunciation and a word’s origin. They are often looking for clues.
“When you see kids guess at the end, it is for a vowel sound,” he said.