New Latin is a complex etymology with a rich history and a deceptive name that often confuses spellers. Of the 211 words given in this year’s SCRIPPS National Spelling Bee finals, 84 (40%) were of Latin and/or Greek origin. Of those 84 words, 30 were formally classified as New Latin. That’s just over ⅓ of all words of Greco-Roman origin asked in the bee, so clearly New Latin has a profound presence in our modern spelling bees. It is growing in frequency and it is important for spellers to grasp its patterns and rules.
In order to fully understand why New Latin behaves the way it does, we must first examine its origins. New Latin was first used in the Renaissance period, just after the haze of the Middle Ages cleared from Europe and a rapid revival of Greco-Roman culture flourished at the start of the 14th century. This renewal of classical customs seeped into every area of European society; art, music, literature, and especially the sciences were affected greatly. Subsequently, Latin and classical Greek sprang to life again and became the languages of the intellectuals.
During the Renaissance, a great deal of discovery and scientific research occurred. Advances in medicine were furthered by autopsies and close observation and study of the human body. Explorers found new plants and animals, and the taxonomical classification system was born. New laws and theories were beginning to shape the realm of physics. Science as a whole progressed rapidly because of Europe’s sudden thirst to learn and explore, and almost all of the written documents recording such explorations were in a new form of Latin coined by the revivalists. This was New Latin, the language of scientific nomenclature - a mix of the two languages of antiquity, with the Latin elements prevailing. I like to think of it as Latin with a Greek twist.
In my studies, I found that every word of New Latin origin asked in the 2017 SCRIPPS National Bee has some scientific implication. In turn, the number of words dealing with botany, zoology, chemistry, medicine, and other fields of science has been rapidly growing in the past three years. This means spellers are highly likely to encounter many words of New Latin origin in upcoming bees. With over 23,000 entries of New Latin origin in Merriam-Webster’s Online Unabridged Dictionary, there are certainly plenty of words for the makers of the bees to choose from.
I would also like to point out a cousin of New Latin - the very similar International Scientific Vocabulary, or ISV. It too is a mixture of Latin and Greek parts utilized in scientific nomenclature, but it is not the same as New Latin. First, ISV stems and roots are of mostly Greco-Roman origin, but they do not retain the original meanings. For example, the originally Greek stem “andro-” alludes anything relating to a plant’s stamen in an ISV context rather than meaning man or male as it would in standard Greek. Second, these ISV parts operate translinguistically, which means they are the same in every language & denote specific scientific ideas. New Latin does share the same basic roots as ISV and also deals with the sciences, but it is not the modern formal scientific language. Only 8 words of ISV origin appeared in the SCRIPPS finals this year.
New Latin, inscrutable as it may seem, is not as difficult to decode if the speller knows about its roots and stems. New Latin essentially combines descriptive Greek and Latin root words to form scientific names and terms. The biggest reason that New Latin poses a problem is that its name misleads spellers. Because it has ‘Latin’ in the name, many spellers try to spell New Latin words with standard Latin patterns. Particularly tricky is the \f\ sound, which is often made by the ph in New Latin because of its Greek parts, contradicting all rules of normal Latin. The short i sound is frequently made by y, another pattern derived from Greek. My advice on how to take on a word of New Latin origin is to focus more on the roots and stems that make up the word rather than sounds and patterns of the word itself. For example, the word pterygoideus given at the 2017 national bee originates strictly from New Latin. A speller who doesn't recognize the Greek-derived root “pteryg-” meaning wing in the word might try to spell the word with the Latin stem “terra-” meaning earth.
By studying Greek and Latin roots, New Latin can easily be mastered. Advanced searches for zoological, botanical, and medical terms can also unearth a handful of hard-to-spell New Latin words likely to appear in future bees. The most important thing to understand about New Latin is that it draws many of its patterns from Greek. Focus on the roots and assembling the words from parts, and New Latin should come easy.