Do you know your homophones from your homonyms? Yesterday I was relocating a book on the history of English spelling that I had bought as a student. It had been written by my tutor, David Scragg, and I had hoped that buying it might improve my grades. It didn’t – though I suppose actually reading it would have helped!
Tucked in the book was an article from a newspaper. I’m not sure which one, or the date it was published. It was written by Charles Lewis, a barrister with an interest in language. His particular interest was the ambiguities in English and the problems this can cause ordinary folk, let alone lawyers.
His discussion of homophones and homonyms brought back memories of lecture halls in the ’70s that managed to be simultaneously stuffy and drafty, and fellow students who managed to snooze peacefully through lectures on the more arcane areas of English grammar despite the uncomfortable wooden benches.
But the two ‘H’ words are quite fun. The examples given below may not work for all English speakers because we use different dialects, but you can probably think of your own word pairings that would.
Homophones are words that are pronounced in the same way, but are spelled differently, like Rome and roam, or horse and hoarse, or wade and weighed, see or sea. Teas / tease / tees. Rain /rein / reign. Homophones are words that sound the same, but come from different language roots (Anglo-Saxon / Latin / Greek etc.)
Homonyms, on the other hand, have the same spelling and pronunciation, but mean completely different things. For example: seal – the animal, and seal – the means of closing something; lock – hair or bolt; mine – colliery, or possessive; saw – tool, or past of the verb to see; see, the verb and see, a bishop’s area of responsibility. Again homonyms have come into common usage via different language roots.
There are also a whole pile of words that have the same spelling, but are pronounced differently: tear, wind, does. Lewis called these biphones.
A few words can fit all categories. One such is ‘row.’
- Homophone – row (your boat) / roe (fish eggs)
- Homonym – row (your boat) / row (of beans)
- Biphone – row (your boat) / row (argument).
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