The tail of fork handles

By | 18th October 2012

Do you know a homonym from a heteronym or a homograph from a homophone? And what about capitonyms and polysemes?

Confused? Well I am not surprised. You have to be an expert in linguistics to be able to reel off the definition of each word and in any event there is a relatively simple way of describing each concept in words we can all readily understand (see below).

I came across a clever example of this art on Twitter recently. This is not a short piece on the merits of that particular part of the social media sphere but a bit of fun with a more serious underlying message.

The tweet (which I was happy to retweet) was by someone calling herself European Girl about the difficulties of learning the English language: Why Spellcheck is such a waste of time.

The problem she identifies is that in English there are many words which look and sound the same but mean something different or which look the same but sound different. If you read her poem you will see what I mean. (Example word : produce: with the accent on the last syllable it is a verb but with the accent on the first syllable it is a noun.)

The problems in this area are exacerbated by the wide variety of people who speak English as a mother tongue. The obvious differences between US English and UK English where the same word is pronounced differently are well known and the phenomenon of a different word being used to mean the same thing in different parts of the world is not confined to English (for example the word for avocado in mainland Spain is different from the word used throughout Spanish speaking Latin America).

Apart from being a bit of fun, we all need to take care to say what we mean in both our personal and business communications with others. Lawyers understand this, which is why they are sometimes characterised as pernickety. But without the precision which comes from regular practice in the art of communication, there would be many more disputes about the meaning of contractual wording than there are already. After all it must be better to search across a body of text for words or phrases in their correct form rather than rely on fuzzy searches. Better to be right first time, in my view, rather than to have to rely on a second but possibly imperfect search.

For any linguaphiles still with me, here are some short definitions courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Homographs (literally “same writing”) are usually defined as words that share the same spelling, regardless of how they are pronounced.[note 1] If they are pronounced the same then they are also homophones (and homonyms) – for example, bark (the sound of a dog) and bark (the skin of a tree). If they are pronounced differently then they are also heteronyms – for example, bow (the front of a ship) and bow (a ranged weapon).
  • Homophones (literally “same sound”) are usually defined as words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled.[note 2] If they are spelled the same then they are also homographs (and homonyms); if they are spelled differently then they are also heterographs (literally “different writing”). Homographic examples include rose (flower) and rose (past tense of rise). Heterographic examples include to, too, two, and there, their, they’re.
  • Heteronyms (literally “different name”) are the subset of homographs (words that share the same spelling) that have different pronunciations (and meanings).[note 3] That is, they are homographs which are not homophones. Such words include desert (to abandon) and desert (arid region); row (to argue or an argument) and row (as in to row a boat or a row of seats – a pair of homophones). Heteronyms are also sometimes called heterophones (literally “different sound”).
  • Polysemes are words with the same spelling and distinct but related meanings. The distinction between polysemy and homonymy is often subtle and subjective, and not all sources consider polysemous words to be homonyms. Words such as mouth, meaning either the orifice on one’s face, or the opening of a cave or river, are polysemous and may or may not be considered homonyms.
  • Capitonyms are words that share the same spelling but have different meanings when capitalized (and may or may not have different pronunciations). Such words include polish (to make shiny) and Polish (from Poland); march (organized, uniformed, steady and rhythmic walking forward) and March (the third month of the year in the Gregorian Calendar). However, both polish or march at the beginning of sentences still need to be capitalized.

So now you know!