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Homonymy

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English

When two or more words are homonyms, these words are pronounced and/or spelt the same, but their meanings aren't related to each other. Because of multiple meanings, if a homonymous word is used with little context, it can cause lexical ambiguity (confusion caused by words that have more than one possible meaning).

What is homonymy?

Look at these examples. Find one word that they all have in common and think about its meaning in each sentence:

  • Do you have a rubber band?
  • My band is performing tonight.
  • We band every bird to track their movements.

Rock band, pixaby.com

Homonymy, Homonymy example, StudySmarterRubber bands, pixaby.com

Each sentence above uses the word band. There is nothing that connects the three different meanings of band except for the spelling and pronunciation. Therefore, the word band is a homonym in each case.

Study tip: For words to be classified as homonyms, they need to meet two criteria:

Have different meanings, e.g. meaning 1 and meaning 2.

Be pronounced the same, spelt the same, or both.

What are some examples of homonymy?

Some other examples of homonyms are:

Address:

  • Your essay fails to address the main issue. = give attention to a problem (verb)
  • What is your address? = a location (noun)

Park:

  • You can't park your car here. = to leave a vehicle somewhere for some time (verb).
  • Are you heading to the park now? = a public place with fields and trees (noun).

Tender:

  • After the accident, he needs some tender loving care. = gentle (adjective).
  • Your firm submitted the lowest tender. = a formal offer to supply goods or do work at a stated price (noun).

Skirt:

  • Every night she rocks her baby to sleep. = to move backwards and forwards (verb).
  • Yesterday's storm forced the ship onto the rocks. = a mass of rock standing in the sea (noun).

Rose:

  • Someone left you a rose. = a type of flower (noun).
  • The price rose significantly last month. = to increase (verb - the past form of 'rise').

What are the types of homonymy?

Homonyms are words with different meanings but pronounced and/or spelt the same. The definition of homonymy is rather broad, as it covers both the pronunciation and the spelling. This broad term can be further subdivided into more specific terms that only concern either spelling or pronunciation. These are called homophones and homographs respectively.

Homonymy, Homophones and Homographs, StudySmarterThe differences in homonyms, Rasia Yogiaman, StudySmarter Originals

Homophones

Homophones are words that have different meanings and spellings but are pronounced the same. Some examples of homophones are:

Meat - meet

  • Sorry, I don't eat meat. (noun)
  • Let's meet again tomorrow! (verb)

Sun-son

  • The sun is hiding behind the clouds. (noun)
  • My son is going to university next year. (noun)

Plain - plane

  • I like your idea. It's plain and simple. (adjective)
  • The plane is having some problems at the moment. (noun)

Homographs

Homographs are words that have different meanings and pronunciations but are spelt the same. Some examples of homographs are:

Record

  • / ˈRekɔːd / - noun: She has a criminal record for drink driving.
  • / rɪˈkɔːd / - verb: Our family always record every birthday party on video.

Bow

  • / bəʊ / - noun: She aimed her bow slowly.
  • / baʊ / - verb: He had to bow to the Queen.

Desert

  • / ˈDezət / - noun: They travelled through the desert for days without water.
  • / dɪˈzɜːt / - verb: He chose to desert his family.

Study tip: If you're not sure how a word should be pronounced correctly, go to your favourite dictionary website. There you can find recordings of standard pronunciations.

Homonyms in literature

In literature, homonyms are usually used to create rhythmic effects or multiple meanings that often cause:

  1. Ambiguity

When homonyms (including homophones and homographs) are used without a concrete reference, it can lead to lexical ambiguity. For example:

Do you know how to hold a bat?

Without context, it isn't clear whether the sentence refers to the animal or a baseball bat.

  1. Pun

A pun is a literary device that plays on words using two identical or similar sounding words with different and/or contradictory meanings. The first meaning is usually quite reasonable, while the secondary meaning is less sensitive.

For example:

Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

- Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 138', (1609).

The first lie means 'lying down' and the second means 'an untrue statement'. The two words reflect the sonnet's main theme which is about two lovers whose relationship is coloured by lies. However, instead of confronting the untruths, they decide to do nothing and enjoy what they have.

  1. Shrewdness / humorous effects

Homonym wordplay is more effective in spoken communication than in writing because the humorous effects are more pronounced when the spelling is not defined. However, if the homonyms are cleverly constructed, they can produce some witty results.

  • Waiter, will the pancakes be long? - No, sir, round
  • What did the chess piece say before bed? - Knight knight
  • What is ice cream's favorite day of the week? - Sundae

Have a look at some examples of homonyms, homophones, and homographs used in literature:

Homonym

Example 1: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597), Act 1 Scene 4.

MERCUTIO

Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.

ROMEO

Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes

With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead

So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.

MERCUTIO

You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings,

And soar with them above a common (1) bound.

ROMEO

I am too sore empierced with his shaft

To soar with his light feathers, and so (2) bound,

I cannot (3) bound a pitch above dull woe;

Under love's heavy burden do I sink.

In this excerpt, you can see that the word bound is used three times with different meanings but the same pronunciation and spelling (homonyms).

  • (1) bound = the rest of the people

Mercutio suggests Romeo should dance, but he says no. Mercutio responds by saying “borrow Cupid's wings and you'll be able to soar above us”.

  • (2) bound = constrained; and,
  • (3) bound = leap. Romeo still refuses Mercutio's suggestion and here he replies, I'm too sore after being hit by the Cupid's arrow to soar with his light feather. I'm being constrained by this love. I can't leap.

This example shows that homonyms can cause multiple interpretations/ambiguity which can affect the perception of the reader/audience. Shakespeare loved to use puns in his plays and sonnets. Puns can provoke thought, clarify or explain something, entertain the audience, or a combination of these.

Homophones

Example 2: Shakespeare, Henry VI (1591), Part 2 Act 1 Scene 1

WARWICK

Unto the main! O father, Maine is lost; (1)

That Maine which by main force Warwick did win, (2)

And would have kept so long as breath did last!

Main chance, father, you meant; but I meant Maine, (3)

Which I will win from France, or else be slain

Shakespeare uses the combination of main - Maine several times in this excerpt from Henry VI. These are homophones. Warwick repeats the word main as a transitional means (sound unit) to redefine Maine, the French county. Then, he adds meant (a variant of main - Maine) in between the last homophonic pair (3).

Reading the text may not cause ambiguity since you can read the words and know exactly what each word means. However, if you watch the play or only hear this wordplay, it may cause some confusion.

Important to note: Keep in mind that language is constantly changing, and so is pronunciation. What were homophones in the 16-17th century (when Shakespeare was writing), may not be homophones now, and vice versa. Modern pronunciation can prevent the audience from experiencing the language as Shakespeare intended it. That is why in 2004, the Globe Theater changed the pronunciation of Shakespeare's play to its 'original pronunciation'.

Homophone and Homonym

Example 3: Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865).

'How is bread made?'

'I know that!' Alice cried eagerly. 'You take some flour ─'

'Where do you pick the flower?' the white queen asked. 'In the garden or in the hedges?'

'Well, it isn't picked at all' Alice explained; it's ground ─ '

'How many acres of ground?' said the White Queen.

The words flour - flower are homophones because they're pronounced the same but written differently. Of course, to make bread we need flour, not flower, but by playing with words in this way, Carroll provides some comical impressions of the characters.

The words ground - ground are homonyms because they're pronounced and written the same but have different meanings. The first ground refers to 'the surface of the earth', while the second one means 'an area of land'.

Like the previous examples, this piece from Alice in Wonderland shows that homonymy can be humorous, but at the same time, can cause ambiguity.

Important to note: To decide whether a pair of words are homophones, you need to check their pronunciation. However, this can be tricky as different individuals may pronounce things differently depending on their background (regional accents, sociolects, etc.). Homophonic words are then determined by the standard pronunciation. If you're not sure how a word is pronounced in Standard English, go to your favourite dictionary and listen to the pronunciation recordings.

What is the difference between homonymy and polysemy?

If you read or hear two words that are written or pronounced the same but have different meanings, they are likely to be either an example of homonymy or polysemy. Deciding what kind of relationship the two words have can be challenging, but not once you understand the differences between these terms.

Homonyms:

  • Are words with different meanings but with the same pronunciation and/or spelling.
  • Are listed under multiple dictionary entries.
  • Can be verb-noun combination: to address - an address, to rock - a rock, to park - a park.

Polysemies:

  • Refers to a word with multiple meanings.
  • Are listed under a single dictionary entry.
  • Must stem from the same word class, eg noun-noun: mouse (an animal - computer device), wings (parts of birds for flying - a building section), beam (a line of light - a piece of wood).

Homonymy vs. polysemy

Let's take the word rose.

First, analyze the multiple meanings and word class. Rose has two meanings (unrelated) and two different word classes:

  • a flower (noun) and,

  • past form of rise (verb).

Second, if the words have multiple forms (multiple entries in a dictionary), eg a verb and noun, they are homonyms. If the two words stem from a single form (one entry in a dictionary), eg a verb or noun, they are polysemies. The word rose has two word forms: a noun and a verb. Thus, rose is a homonym.

Third, check if the different meanings are related. The two meanings of rose ('a flower' and 'the past form of rise') are not related. This further proves that rose is a homonym.

On the other hand, the word bank ('of a river' and 'a financial institution') is an example of polysemy because it only has one form (noun) and both meanings are related. Take a look at the diagram below for visual aid.

Homonymy vs Polysemy, Raisa Yogiaman, StudySmarter Originals

From the diagram, we can conclude that both homonymous and polysemic words have multiple meanings, but what distinguishes them is the number of forms the words have and the relation between the different meanings:

  • Homonymy: multiple forms (several dictionary entries) and unrelated meanings.
  • Polysemy: a single form (one dictionary entry) and related meanings.

Homonymy - Key takeaways

  • Homonymy defines words with different meanings but with the same pronunciation and/or spelling.
  • Homonymy is the broad term for homophones and homographs. Homophones are words with different meanings but the same pronunciation, while homographs are words with different meanings and pronunciations but the same spelling.
  • Homonyms are usually used to create rhythmic effects and multiple meanings which may cause ambiguity, puncture, and shrewdness or humorous effects.
  • Polysemy refers to words with several related meanings but listed under one dictionary entry.

Homonymy

Homonymy is the term for words with different meanings but the same pronunciation (homophone) and / or spelling (homograph). Homonyms have multiple dictionary entries (eg as a verb and noun).

Some examples of homonymy are band (music band & rubber band), address (to address someone and details of where somebody lives), and rock (to move backwards and forwards and a stone).

Polysemy refers to words with several related meanings but listed under one dictionary entry eg, mouse, wings, and beam. Homonymy refers to words with different meanings but the same pronunciation and / or spelling, eg, band, address, and rock. Homonyms have multiple dictionary entries.

The types of homonymy are homophones and homographs.

Homophones are words with different meanings but the same pronunciation, while homographs are words with different meanings and pronunciations but the same spelling.

Final Homonymy Quiz

Question

True or false - Homonymy refers to 'words with different meanings that are neither pronounced nor spelt the same'?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

What is a homograph?


Show answer

Answer

 A homograph is a word with different meanings but the same spelling.

Show question

Question

What is a homophone?


Show answer

Answer

A homophone is a word with different meanings but the same pronunciation.

Show question

Question

True or false - Homograph is the broader term for homophone and homonymy.


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Is the word rock a homonym, homograph, or homophone?


Show answer

Answer

Homonym

Show question

Question

Are flower and flour a pair of homonyms, homographs, or homophones?


Show answer

Answer

Homophones

Show question

Question

Are the words plain and plane a pair of homographs or homophones?


Show answer

Answer

Homophones

Show question

Question

 Are the words bow in these sentences homophones? 

  • She aimed her bow slowly.
  • He bowed down begging for some money.

Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

Are the words bear in these sentences homographs?

  • Most polar bears live in the North Pole.
  • I'll bear the consequences of my decision.


Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

Are the words been and bean in these sentences homophones?

  • I've never been to Spain.
  • These coffee beans were roasted for hours using a special technique.


Show answer

Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

 Are the words entrance in these sentences homographs?

  • The thief ran through the back entrance.
  • He has entranced millions of people with his beautiful voice.


Show answer

Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

Why is it likely that homonyms cause ambiguity?


Show answer

Answer

A homonym is likely to cause ambiguity because if homonyms are used without specific context, the listeners/readers can't be sure which meaning the speakers/authors intend.

Show question

Question

True or false - Polysemy refers to words with several related meanings and listed under several dictionary entries.


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Are the words foot in these sentences examples of polysemy?

  • My left foot is numb.
  • The children climbed a 10-foot tree.

Show answer

Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

True or false - Serve is an example of both polysemy and homonymy?


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false?


Homonyms can create lexical ambiguity.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Homonyms can be used to create puns. What is a pun?

Show answer

Answer

A literary device that plays on words using two identical or similar sounding words with different and/or contradictory meanings

Show question

Question

Homonym wordplay is more effective in...


Show answer

Answer

speech than in writing

Show question

Question

Homonymy is a _____ term.

Show answer

Answer

broad

Show question

Question

Homonymy can be divided into two more specific terms. What are they? 

Show answer

Answer

homophones and homographs

Show question

Question

True or false?


Homonyms can never be used for humorous effect.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

What is polysemy?

Show answer

Answer

Polysemy refers to single words with several related meanings

Show question

Question

True or false?


Polysemic words are listed under one dictionary entry.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false?


Homonymous words are listed under one dictionary entry.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


Homonymous words have unrelated meanings.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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