Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sorting Out Homophones, Homonyms, and Homographs

My kids and I have been playing word games about homophones, words that sound the same even though they are different. The word homophone is an apt name for these words, because homophone comes from Greek words meaning "same sound."

Homophones can be divided into two classes, those that have the same spelling and those that don't:

  • CAN you hand me the oil CAN?
  • OUR trip lasted an HOUR.


Meanwhile, words that are spelled the same even though they are different are called homographs. The word homograph is also apt, because it comes from Greek words meaning "same writing." Homographs can also be divided into two classes—those that have the same pronunciation and those that don't:

  • CAN you hand me the oil CAN?
  • His BOW stilled at last, the violinist took a BOW.


Words with the same spelling and the same pronunciation are called homonyms. This word is apt because it comes from Greek words meaning "same name," and if it ever happens that two persons have the same name, then their names are the same whether written or spoken.

So far, all of this makes great sense. Unfortunately, the usage of these terms gets more complicated. Some people apparently use homonym as a synonym of homophone, while others use homonym as a synonym of homograph.The result is that as things stand, homonym is a pretty meaningless term. I plan to continue using it anyway, according to its strict sense of words like CAN/CAN that are spelled the same and pronounced the same even though they are different. In short,

Homonym = Homophone + Homograph.

More difficulties arise because while we have the homo- words available to describe these properties, we seem to lack a coherent set of hetero- words to describe their absence. Disastrously for the logic of the situation, the word heteronym is standardly used to describe words like BOW/BOW that are spelled the same but pronounced differently. Logically however, BOW/BOW ought to have been called a heterophone, to indicate that the two words sound different.

Surprisingly, the word heterophone does not appear in either of my reference dictionaries, the American Heritage Fourth Edition or the Random House Unabridged. So if necessary let's coin it here:

Heterophone: a word that is pronounced differently from another.

Let's also coin another word that appears in neither of my dictionaries:

Heterograph: a word that is spelled differently from another.

(Beware that if you search the Web for "heterophone," you will find a definition on wiktionary.org. I don't consider wiktionary to be a real reference, but in any case the definition given there for heterophone is madness. They say that a heterophone is a word that is spelled and pronounced differently from another. But how can you use a -phone word to refer to a property of spelling?? Shut down the browser and stick to books for this kind of thing.)

To summarize so far, here is how I would carve up this area of the world:

  • CAN and CAN are homophones and homographs (and, thus, homonyms).
  • OUR and HOUR are homophones and heterographs.
  • BOW and BOW are heterophones and homographs.
  • CAT and DOG are heterophones and heterographs.

Logical, right? What the system lacks, though, is a single term for cases like OUR/HOUR, or a single term for cases like BOW/BOW. This is tricky, because you have to find a single term that captures two dimensions at once (sound and spelling). And ideally you want homo[x] and hetero[x] to designate mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive categories.

As a first step, I will offer another new word:

Quasinym: a word that is a homophone or a homograph, but not a homonym.

So OUR/HOUR and BOW/BOW are quasinyms, and this is apt since quasi- means "to some degree," and thus quasinym refers to words that are "almost but not quite homonyms."

But what about cases like OUR/HOUR specifically? Or BOW/BOW specifically? I think we can appeal to context to save us. Heterographs, after all, come in two varieties, those like OUR/HOUR that are interesting and those like CAT/DOG that are not. How often will we mean the latter variety when using this discourse? Pretty much never. Likewise, in actual use, heterophone will always refer to cases like BOW/BOW rather than cases like CAT/DOG.

And there is no strong need to coin a term for CAT/DOG, because again the actual discourse mostly sets these cases aside from the outset. That said, a possible choice for this category could be

Antinym: a word that is a heterophone and a heterograph.

This makes for a nice progression of "specialness," antinymquasinymhomonym.

Our final system is as follows:

  • CAN and CAN are homophones and homographs (and, thus, homonyms).
  • OUR and HOUR are homophones and heterographs (and, thus, quasinyms).
  • BOW and BOW are heterophones and homographs (and, thus, quasinyms).
  • CAT and DOG are heterophones and heterographs (and, thus, antinyms).

Within the discourse of wordplay, where antinyms aren't really "live," the word heterograph serves to identify cases like OUR/HOUR, and the word heterophone serves to identify cases like BOW/BOW.

UPDATE 4/1/15: Some Web searching suggests that linguists do observe these terms, classifying OUR/HOUR as heterographic homophones (or homophonic heterographs) and classifying BOW/BOW as heterophonic homographs (or homographic heterophones). This is more precise than just leaving it up to context. One could designate CAT/DOG similarly as heterophonic heterographs (or heterographic heterophones).

1 comment:

endy smith said...

Thank you very much for this useful information post, which you have published on your site. I was glad to visit this article and to read it. I like your thoughts and your style of writing. Thank you.