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A hymn to the homonym

Although I’ve heard it suggested that that English is more difficult than other languages, most linguists agree that there is no such thing as “the hardest language.” Language difficulty is an instinctive notion based on which languages one is fluent in.

All languages, however, have components that are especially difficult. When it comes to English, the homonym can be surprisingly perplexing for language learners (and native speakers!).

I remember feeling totally lost in grade school as I learned about synonyms, antonyms and homonyms. At a young age, these distinctions were hard to grasp, but most of us eventually got the hang of them.

Now, of course, we can rely on the Internet for a quick reference: antonyms are opposites (big and small); synonyms are words with shared meanings (house and abode); and homonyms are words that sound exactly alike but have different meanings (aloud and allowed).

Homonyms, it turns out, are much more complicated than we were led to believe in elementary school. The word comes from a combination of the Greek root homo, ‘one and the same,’ and onym, ‘word or name,’ and, thus, refers to words that represent some type of sameness. The idea of sameness is divided into subcategories with very specific distinctions.

Homophones, for example, from homo + phon, ‘sound,’ are words that sound the same but have a different spelling, such as pear, pare and pair. Words in this group generally have different etymologies, which accounts for their orthographic differences.

‘Pear,’ for example, comes from the Old High German pira, which also refers to the fruit; the root of ‘pare’ is the Latin parare, ‘prepare’; and ‘pair’ comes from Medieval Latin paria ‘equals.’ Homophones are quite common and often lead to crafty wordplay. Consider, for example, the riddles one could contrive with morning and mourning, air and heir, cent and scent, him and hymn, idol and idle. 

Another type of homonym, the homograph, comes from the combination of homo + graph, ‘written or drawn.’ Not surprisingly, a homograph refers to words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings, such as ‘fine’ (it’s fine if you pay your fine tomorrow…but, be sure to read the fine print), ‘down’ (put your head down on the down pillow) and mind (do you mind if I mind the children?). These words are understood entirely by context.

Although homographs often come from different origins, there are a few instances where both versions of the word come from the same source, which, over time, splintered into different meanings. One such example is ‘present.’ 

The word present comes from the Old French prae, ‘before,’ and esse, ‘to be.’ In Old French, present was an adjective meaning ‘existing at the time.’ As a noun, it could mean ‘this point in time.’ When people offered a gift, it was offered en present meaning “(to offer) in the presence of,” which is how the word ‘present,’ as a gift, came about. Among common homographs are can, bank, nail, rock, file, sign, lie, bear, story, sink and the verb present. 

When homographs are only understood by the way they are pronounced  they are called heteronyms, from the Greek hetero, ‘different or other,’ and onym. Heteronyms share sameness in that they look identical, but they are actually understood by their quality of differentness. That is to say one must ascertain the meaning from the way in which the word is pronounced and its context.

Common examples of heteronyms include ‘tear’ (I shed a tear when I saw a tear in my favorite jeans), ‘lead’ (the lead in Flint’s water supply leads me to suspect foul play), ‘object’ (I object to the placement of the object), ‘close’ (That was a close call, now please close the door), ‘wound’ (the bandage was wound around the wound), and ‘refuse’ (I refuse to leave the refuse out all night). English is full of these puzzling phonographic wonders. Consider mobile, bow, minute, affect, invalid, wind and intimate, among others.

English learners often struggle with trying to figure out which which is which and, in fact, even native speakers like to disagree about the rules that govern homonyms. I came across one language blogging site where adults actually argued over the topic! I did find some humor, however, amidst all the confusion. One man offered the following: “A homephone is actually the opposite of a mobile or cell phone—it’s the one you keep at home. Can we all agree on that?”


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