What are Homographs?

Contents

Definitions

Homographs are those words that have one spelling but two pronunciations and two distinct meanings or usages. A classic case would be a word like wound, which as a noun or present tense verb means injury or injure and with a different pronunciation is the past tense of the verb wind, itself a homograph.

The term is contrasted with homophones, words with two spellings and two meanings but only one pronunciation such as fair/fare, and with homonyms, words with one spelling, one pronunciation, but two unrelated meanings, such as bear or just or left.

The fact that the meanings are unrelated is what distinguishes homonyms from polysemes, words with varied meanings or usages, such as course or table or paper, where all the meanings can be traced back to the same root. English has an enormous number of polysemes, but only a relatively small set of true homonyms.

Not everybody uses this set of definitions, though they would be accepted by the majority of trained linguistic scholars. In wider usage (reflected in many dictionaries) the term homograph includes what I have here called homonyms and polysemes, i.e. words of different meaning but the same spelling and pronunciation, such as right and fly.

For those people, the term for what I am calling homographs is heteronyms, a term not much used by professional linguists. ( Heterophane would be a much more appropriate label since what is different is the sound, not the name.)

Homographs are a minor problem for anyone learning English as a foreign language, but a much greater problem for anyone trying to design a foolproof text-to-speech algorithm for a computer. If one pronunciation is far commoner than the other (as with the word second, for instance) the programmer will probably ignore the exceptional case. Where both pronunciations occur frequently, as with an object or read or row, the programmer must try to find contextual markers on which to base a rule.

The source of this list was the Roger Mitton machine-readable version of the 1974 Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, incorporating Mitton's 1991 additions. The dictionary contained 537 words that had more than one pronunciation listed. Some of these were simply words with varying pronunciations and no shift of meaning, such as breechesdowsinggarage, and piano or varying stress patterns such as bow-wow, bye-bye, and fricassee, and these were discarded.

There were also four strong-form/weak-form pairs, a, an, to, and 'cos (it is not clear why these were the only such pairs to emerge), three cases of abbreviations matching ordinary words, am (before noon), in (inch), and no (number), and one case of a loan word overlapping with an established English word, real (probably referring to the old Spanish coin rather than the football team).

The remaining 488 words plus about 140 more which were either not in the dictionary or not given two pronunciations in the dictionary have been classified into relevant groupings and are listed below. The spellings and phonetic transcriptions are mainly as they appear in the dictionary, though I have used Gimsonian IPA symbols rather than the Alvey transcription that Mitton had to use so that he could store his dictionary as a text file. There is also a complete alphabetical checklist of homographs which you can consult if looking for a particular word.

Double stress

A number of double-stress words showed up. These are words whose pronunciation varies with their position in the phrase, front-stressed before a noun, and end-stressed when final in the phrase, though without substantial change of meaning. (Compare "an overnight bag" with "Are you staying overnight?")

inland 'ɪnlənd ,ɪn'lænd
outside 'aʊtsaɪd ,aʊt'saɪd
overall 'əʊvərɔl ,əʊvə'rɔl
overhead 'əʊvəhed ,əʊvə'hed
overnight 'əʊvənaɪt ,əʊvə'naɪt
overweight 'əʊvəweɪt ,əʊvə'weɪt

There are a number of other English words which behave in the same way, such as afternoon, bamboo, downhill, downstairs, inside, overseas, princess, routine, sardine, underground, upstairs, together with many compound adjectives ( easy-going, home-made ), all nationality adjectives ending in - ese, numbers from 13 to 99 (apart from multiples of 10), and many place names such as BombayHong KongNew York, and Torquay.

In these other cases, the dictionary did not record both stress patterns. Probably only the word overall (with its secondary meaning of an item of clothing) should be counted as a homograph since in the other cases the change of pronunciation signals only a syntactic feature rather than a shift of meaning.

Stress homographs

The next distinct group, which was by far the largest, was the set of nouns (or adjectives) with front-stress against verbs with end-stress with 295 words altogether. One suspects that in a good many cases the distinction is unnecessary for intelligibility; the set of -port words ( export, import, transport ) for instance are often heard with front stress even when being used as verbs, and I have heard on air the word increase stressed both ways as a noun and both ways as a verb.

Similarly, combat is always front-stressed as a noun but may have either stress pattern when used as a verb. All these words are more likely to have stress on the second syllable when an inflection adds the third syllable, thus trans'porting in'creasing or com'bating . In thirty-five cases (listed in the table below) there is a large difference in meaning and use between the two spoken forms while in other cases the difference is more syntactic than lexical.

In most cases, any adjective senses ally themselves with the noun and exhibit front stress, but in one case, content, the adjective sense is end-stressed and relates more closely to the verb than to the noun. The adjective compact seems to occur both front-stressed and end-stressed with no change of meaning, although the noun is always front-stressed and the verb always end-stressed.

Similarly, the noun complex is always front-stressed, though the adjective seems to vary freely between front stress and end stress. Perhaps the most memorable example of its occurrence with end stress is in the line from the Tom Lehrer song about Oedipus Rex, "You must have heard of his complex complex." (The force of the meter here tends to give both words end-stress.) All the other adjectives in the full list, absentabstractcompoundconversefrequentperfectpresentquadruple, and second, were front-stressed.

Several problems occur with the prefix re- , for instance in the word recall where usage is inconsistent and is probably changing, and with refresh which is coming into the language as a front-stressed noun meaning a second cup of coffee in a restaurant.

There are four other cases of a large shift of meaning between the front-stressed noun and end-stressed verb, namely recordrecountrefuse and relay, and a further seventeen cases are in the long list where there is no significant difference in meaning. Other cases of re- verbs not involving a change of stress are listed in a separate section below.

There are four cases needing further comment.

  • The word entrance, while looking like a stress homograph, should perhaps be counted as a true homograph, since the noun sense derives from the verb enter while the verb sense derives from the noun trance.
  • The word deserts exist as two different nouns, one front-stressed meaning 'dry places', and the other end-stressed meaning 'what one deserves' and occurring usually in the fixed phrase 'get one's just deserts'. This second use has a homophone in the word desserts meaning 'sweet courses', which gives rise to many spelling errors and headline puns.
  • The word process exists as a noun with front-stress and as two different verbs, one with front-stress with a meaning linked to the noun process and one with end-stress with a meaning linked to the noun procession.
  • Similarly the word second exists as two separate verbs, one with front stress meaning to support a proposal at a formal meeting, and one with end stress meaning to send somebody away on temporary duty. The second use is fairly unusual, being mainly confined to military and civil service contexts.

-ATE words

Another large group was the set of words ending with -ate where the noun/adjective sense uses a schwa while the verb sense uses a full /eɪ/ diphthong. There were 45 of these (or 74 counting the inflectional variants). All of them retain the same stress pattern whether noun/adjective or verb except for alternate and consummate which, like analyses and diagnoses and unlike the other stress homographs, puts the stress at the front for the verb and later for the noun/adjective. I have omitted discriminate, which is very common as a verb but extremely rare as an adjective, although the negative of the adjective, indiscriminate, is common. One that is a relatively recent development (first attested 1909) is the verb sense of curate, meaning to be in charge of an art exhibition, a back-formation from curator. The noun sense, assistant to a minister of religion, is much older.

-MENT words

A similar but smaller group was the set of words ending with -ment where the noun sense uses a schwa while the verb sense uses a full vowel. The dictionary listed five of these (ten including the inflectional variants), though in present-day usage this set is no longer consistently differentiated; most speakers nowadays will use a schwa for the verbs to implement or to supplement, and probably for the whole set.

Voicing

A fifth set was that in which the noun/verb or adjective/verb distinction was made by voicing a final consonant. There were eighteen of these. One of them, the word close, exists as a verb with /z/, as an adjective with /s/, and as two different nouns, with /z/ meaning 'conclusion' and with /s/ meaning 'street with no exit'. In the form closer it may be a comparative adjective with /s/ or an agent noun with /z/. It is also worth noting the way used occurs with /s/ in the colligation 'used to' to make a past tense while the pronunciation with /z/ has the meaning 'employed'. In the nineteenth century, a distinction was made between 'a mouse' with final /s/ and 'to mouse' (catch mice) with final /z/, but that is not hard nowadays.

Words beginning re-

Apart from the words beginning with re- which occur as front-stressed nouns or end-stressed verbs such as rebel, record, refill and reprint, listed under stress homographs above, there are a number of others that are not distinguished by main stress but by the presence of secondary stress on the prefix and a consequent change of pronunciation from /rɪ/ to /ri/ .

The first pronunciation tends to be associated with the meaning 'back' and the second with 'again'. The prefix re- with the second pronunciation often has the potential to enter homographs as one returns to earlier meanings of the base form.

Thus we talk of reform /rɪ'fɔm/ in the church or the legal system, but a sculptor might reform /,ri'fɔm/ a clay model; you can make a remark /rɪ'mɑk/ in speech, while a teacher may remark /,ri'mɑk/ a contested exam paper. You may resent /rɪ'zent/ unfair criticism, while a garbled message may be resent /,ri'sent/ .

This distinction is sometimes signaled by including a hyphen in the spelling for the second meanings, re-form re-mark and re-sent . Notice that the main stress does not move and that where the base begins with <s> the pronunciation shifts between /z/ and /s/ as in resent, reserve, resign, and resort.

More of these forms may be added to the language, though those listed below are the only ones I know of so far that are well attested. There are two other special cases, the verb represent and the noun recreation in which the stress is on the prefix and the distinction is between the pronunciations /re/ and /ri/.

"True" homographs

That left the following set of 119 homographs (179 if all the inflectional variants are counted) arising from a variety of causes. This section of the list includes those words like moped and wound which are most typical of what we have in mind when we think of homographs. These include a number that was not in the original dictionary list.

I have included several which contrast an ordinary word with a place or personal name: the words niceangerslens, and tours all contrasting with French cities, liege with a Belgian city, trier with a German city, hue with a Vietnamese city, reading with an English or American town, abridge with an English village, scone with a Scottish village and palace, wear with an English river, tangier with a Moroccan port, mobile with a city in Alabama, natal with a South African province, rainier with a prince of Monaco, munch with a Norwegian artist, pears with an English singer, dieter with a German first-name, ravel with a French composer, mime with a character in Wagner's Ring cycle, and job with an Old-Testament prophet.

Like august/August, and polish/Polish they are distinguished by capitalization and would only be homographs in sentence-initial position or in all-upper-case writing. The word romance as a verb meaning to pay court to would most likely have the schwa in the first syllable, while romance meaning a piece of fiction could have either schwa or a full diphthong, and Romance as a description of languages derived from Latin would almost certainly have the full diphthong.

The surname Brazil is usually front-stressed (as in Angela Brazil the author) while the name of the country is end-stressed. The girl's name Nancy is another homograph in contrast with a French city. Sue as an abbreviation for Susan is never palatalized, while the verb sue often is in British English.

The word dove is a homograph for speakers of American English but not for the British for whom the past tense of dive is dived. The verb sundry (dry in the sun) is not well attested, though the participle sundried is common on food labels, sometimes with a hyphen, sun-dried . The adjective pasty (pale) is always so spelled, but the noun (a meat pie) has an alternative spelling of pastie, common in Ireland. I am also unsure how well the verb predate is attested in the meaning "devour prey", though it is common in its other meaning of "come before". In six cases of recent loan words, exposechargepateroseresume, and attaches, the homograph is disambiguated by retaining the French accents in the English spelling.

The contrast between the two-syllable and three-syllable pronunciations of the evening may not be consistently made by all RP speakers, though all would recognize it, I believe.

There are several cases involving Latin or Greek terms or names: ate versus the Goddess Atedives versus Dives (rich man), agapemanes, and pace. Two cases, axes, and bases, contrast a Latin plural with an English plural.

Tonemic homograph

One other word worth drawing attention to is quiet. This has two distinct meanings, completely as in "You're quite right" and to some extent as in "He's quite clever". Although both senses are pronounced the same at the segmental level, i.e. the same sequence of vowels and consonants, they are consistently differentiated by intonation, the first sense occurring in phrases with a falling tone and the second in phrases with a fall-rise.

This makes it appear the only example of a toneme distinction in English, i.e. a case where a distinction in the meaning of a word is indicated by a tone difference. I would argue that this meets the definition of a homograph, namely two meanings, two pronunciations, but only one spelling.

Abbreviations

There is one homograph I know of (there may be more) that arises from abbreviating two different words. Reg is pronounced /reʤ/ when it is short for Reginald or registration, as in "a T-reg car". It is pronounced /reg/ when it is short for regulation as in "Queen's Regs" (the British Army's rule book). Luckily the second form is almost always plural and the first almost always singular, so there is little chance of confusion.

There are at least five cases where a homograph arises between a full word and an abbreviation. One is the homograph of path, which is pronounced /pɑƟ/ by RP speakers in its ordinary meaning as a place to walk, and /pæƟ/ when it is an abbreviation for pathology, as in "we are waiting for the path reports"; another is the abbreviation Staffs /stæfs/ for Staffordshire against the word staffs /stɑfs/, which would be homographs in upper-case writing; a third is the word coop meaning enclosure as opposed to Coop, sometimes written Co-op or Coöp. The abbreviation for the Coöperative Stores; a fourth is the word coax pronounced /kəʊks/ meaning 'persuade' versus the abbreviation for coaxial cable coax pronounced /kəʊ'æks/, and a fifth is the word thou, pronounced /ðaʊ/ when it is the old fashioned word for 'you' and /Ɵaʊ/ when it is an abbreviation for 'thousand'. A possible sixth example is brat, pronounced /bræt/ to mean an ill-behaved child, and /brɑt/ as an abbreviation for Bratwurst in the USA.

Place names

Another special case is place names. In England, there are three towns called Gillingham. The one in Kent is pronounced /'ʤɪlɪŋəm/ while the ones in Dorset and Norfolk are pronounced /'gɪlɪŋəm/. Unfortunately only people who live locally to one of these towns (as I do) would be likely to know this and maintain the distinction consistently.

There are four communities called Plaistow, pronounced /'pleɪstəʊ/ in Derby, /'plɑstəʊ/ in Kent or Essex, and /'plæstəʊ/ in Sussex. Alford is pronounced /'ɑfəd if you are referring to the Scottish one or /'ɔlfəd if you mean the English one. Lagos in Nigeria is pronounced / 'leɪgɒs / while Lagos in Portugal is usually / 'lɑgɒs /.

A similar case in Berkeley in California, pronounced /'bɜklɪ/ (by RP speakers) or /'brklɪ/, contrasted with Berkeley in the west of England, pronounced /'bɑklɪ/. There is also the case of the Kentucky Derby, pronounced /'dɜrbɪ/, and the British horse race, the Derby at Epsom, pronounced /'dɑbɪ/. I suspect that one could find more cases of pairs of places in different countries with the same spelling and different pronunciations.