The pupils getting back to their roots with etymology

21st August 2015 at 01:00
A new olympiad challenges students to trace linguistic past

For pupils with a knack for accurate spelling, there is the spelling bee. For maths prodigies, there is the International Olympiad. And now, for children interested in the origins of words, there is the etymology olympiad.

A new competition is encouraging pupils to compete nationally and internationally to see who is the best at reciting the Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of words.

The etymology olympiad works in the same way as a spelling bee: children step up to a podium and are presented with complex, multisyllabic words. But, instead of spelling them out, they start to break them down.

Teaching children the etymology of words can help them learn to make sense of vocabulary they have not previously encountered, according to Dhruv Raj Sharma, founder of Logophilia, which runs the programme.

He hopes the competition will one day be as popular as the International Maths Olympiad, which this summer attracted contestants from more than 100 countries.

Logical thought

Mr Sharma came up with the idea for Logophilia (from logos, for "word", and philos, for "loving") after he began working as an English tutor in his native India.

"I was beginning to notice the irony that everybody was saying, `This is all Greek and Latin to me'," he said. "But, if it was actually Greek or Latin, it would make sense, because these are very logical languages."

He therefore drew up a series of etymology-based lessons for secondary pupils, breaking words down into a series of thematically arranged roots drawn from Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon.

And, as Mick Connell of the National Association for the Teaching of English points out, such lessons can be extended to other languages, including Hindi, Urdu and Arabic.

So pupils could yell "bint" at one another, safe in the knowledge that they are in fact discussing the Arabic word for "girl". Similarly, they could learn that Indians have no problem at all with wearing pyjamas (Persian for "leg-garment") to school.

"As English teachers, we've been focused on children using their own words," Mr Connell said. "But it's possible that you could do wonderful dances of vocabulary in front of your kids.

"There should be a sense of delight in the possibility of language, in all its variety. How are children's vocabularies going to expand unless you offer them more words to make their own?"

Mr Sharma's lessons look at a range of Greek and Latin roots. So pupils would learn that kratia, the Greek term for "rule", is the origin of the word-ending "-cracy", meaning "ruled by". They would then volunteer words such as "democracy", "plutocracy" and "aristocracy", leading to discussions about what "pluto-", "demo-" or "aristo-" might mean.

"Students begin to see that English is not an arduous, illogical language," Mr Sharma said. "They start to see method in the madness, and then it's not madness. English is a highly systematic language and should be studied in context."

The Logophilia programme is now taught in six states across India, as well as in one state in the US. The company also runs state-wide and national etymology olympiads in India.

At the first of these olympiads, Mr Sharma invited school pupils and university students to take part, and pitted them against one another. A 14-year-old pupil defeated undergraduates at the top university in India to take home the trophy.

Mr Connell believes that such activities could be accompanied by exercises studying the development of language. For example, pupils could contrast different versions of the Lord's Prayer, beginning with its first translation into Old English ("Fder ure _u _e eart on heofonum").

Emma Cox, head of English at Exeter Cathedral School, agrees. "When I take children into the cathedral, they see gravestones written in Latin. And, in paintings and on the sides of buildings, you see things in Latin and Greek. You can see that most of our words come from old languages," she said.

For more information on the etymology olympiad, see the Logophilia website at

`It gives purpose and meaning'

Emma Cox, pictured, head of English at Exeter Cathedral School, believes that teaching etymology could prove an effective means of expanding pupils' vocabularies.

"Anything that makes spelling fun is a good thing," she said. "Decontextualised spelling doesn't work: learning words out of context has no impact on children's spelling.

"If you're teaching spelling along with root words, it gives it a purpose and a meaning. Children recognise families of words, which puts it in context.

"I could see an etymology olympiad becoming an enrichment activity for gifted and talented children. How nice if it went to disadvantaged children, who didn't have the chance to learn Classics."

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