Homonyms (in Greek homoios = identical and onoma = name) are words that have the same phonetic or orthographic form but unrelated meaning. If they are the same only in one way, they are called homophones and homographs respectively. In derivation, homonym means the same name, homophone means the same sound, and homograph means the same letters.
There is a fish called a fluke, a part of a whale called a fluke and a stroke of luck called a fluke, but these are three separate lexemes with separate etymologies that all happen to share one form. Similarly, a river bank, a savings bank, and a bank of switches share only a common spelling and pronunciation, but not meaning.
The first homonyms that one learns in English are probably to, too, and two (homophones), but the sentence "Too much to do in two days" would confuse no one. (Note, however, when read with a natural rhythm, to has a schwa and is not homophonous with too or two.) There, their, and they're are familar examples as well. Lead the metal and lead the verb, or moped the motorized bicycle and moped the past tense of mope are examples of homographs; they are not homophones, because they are pronounced differently. The National Puzzlers' League calls homographs heteronyms. This term is particularly appropriate where the homograph, such as cleave, has two opposite meanings, "to split" and "to cling close".
In some accents, various sounds have merged in that they are no longer distinctive, and thus words that differ only by those sounds in an accent that maintains the distinction (a minimal pair) are homophonous in the accent with the merger. Some examples are pin and pen in many southern American accents, and merry, marry, and Mary in many western American accents. The pairs do, due and forward, foreword are homophonous in most American accents but not in most British accents. Similarly, affect and effect are distinguished in some careful or cultivated speech.
Homograph disambiguation is critically important in speech synthesis, but otherwise, homonyms are mostly curiosities, of limited linguistic interest compared to the strong functional roles of antonyms and synonyms. See pun, however. See also polysemy for a closely related idea.
- His death, which happen'd in his berth,
- At forty-odd befell:
- They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll'd the bell
Thomas Hood, "Faithless Sally Brown"
Last updated: 10-12-2005 22:56:37