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Homonymy in English

Homonymy in English



††††††††† Introduction

1.    Determination of Homonymy

2.    Classifications of Homonyms

†††††††††††† A. The standard way of classification (given by I.V. Arnold)

a)    Homonyms proper

b)    Homophones

c)    Homographs

B. Classification given by A.I. Smirnitsky

a)    Full homonyms

b)    Partial homonyms

C. Other aspects of classification

3.    Sources of Homonyms

4.    Problems of Homonymy

a)    Distinguishing homonymy from polysemy

b)    Different meanings of the same homonym in terms of distribution

c)    Difference between patterned and non-patterned homonymy


†††††††† Conclusion

†††† Literature




††† Language processing considerations have often been used to explain aspects of language structure and evolution. According to Bates and MacWhinney, this view "is a kind of linguistic Darwinism, an argument that languages look the way they do for functional or adaptive reasons". However, as in adaptationist accounts of biological structures and evolution, this approach can lead to the creation of "just so" stories. In order to avoid these problems, case-by-case analyses must be replaced by statistical investigations of linguistic corpora. In addition, independent evidence for the relative "adaptiveness" of certain linguistic structures must be obtained. We will use this approach to study a linguistic phenomenon Ц homonymy. That seems to be maladaptive both intuitively and empirically and has been frequently subjected to informal adaptationist arguments. A statistical analysis of English homonyms then uncovered a reliable bias against the usage of homonyms from the same grammatical class. A subsequent experiment provided independent evidence that such homonyms are in fact more confusing than those from different grammatical classes.

†††† In a simple code each sign has only one meaning, and each meaning is associated with only one sign. This one-to-one relationship is not realized in natural languages. When several related meanings are associated with the same group of sounds within one part of speech, the word is called polysemantic, when two or more unrelated meanings are associated with the same form Ц the words are homonyms.


††† The intense development of homonymy in the English language is obviously due not to one single factor but to several interrelated causes, such as the monosyllabic character of English and its analytic structure.

††† The abundance of homonyms is also closely connected with such a characteristic feature of the English language as the phonetic identity of word and stem or, in other words, the predominance of free forms among the most frequent roots. It is quite obvious that if the frequency of words stands in some inverse relationship to their length, the monosyllabic words will be the most frequent. Moreover, as the most frequent words are also highly polysemantic, it is only natural that they develop meanings, which in the coarse of time may deviate very far from the central one.

††† In general, homonymy is intentionally sought to provoke positive, negative or awkward connotations. Concerning the selection of initials, homonymy with shortened words serves the purpose of manipulation.† The demotivated process of a shortened word hereby leads to re-motivation.† The form is homonymously identical with an already lexicalized linguistic unit, which makes it easier to pronounce or recall, thus standing out from the majority of acronyms.† This homonymous unit has a secondary semantic relation to the linguistic unit.

††† Homonymy of names functions as personified metaphor with the result that the homonymous name leads to abstraction.† The resultant new word coincides in its phonological realization with an existing word in English. However, there is no logical connection between the meaning of the acronym and the meaning of the already existing word, which explains a great part of the humor it produces.

††† In the coarse of time the number of homonyms on the whole increases, although occasionally the conflict of homonyms ends in word loss.



1.Determination of Homonymy


††† Two or more words identical in sound and spelling but different in meaning, distribution and in many cases origin are called homonyms. The term is derived from Greek УhomonymousФ (homos Ц Уthe sameФ and onoma Ц УnameФ) and thus expresses very well the sameness of name combined with the difference in meaning.1

††† There is an obvious difference between the meanings of the symbol fast in such combinations as run fast СquicklyТ and stand fast СfirmlyТ. The difference is even more pronounced if we observe cases where fast is a noun or a verb as in the following proverbs:

УA clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast;

Who feasts till he is sick, must fast till he is well.Ф

††† Fast as an isolated word, therefore, may be regarded as a variable that can assume several different values depending on the conditions of usage, or, in other words distribution. All the possible values of each linguistic sign are listed in the dictionaries. It is the duty of lexicographers to define the boundaries of each word, i.e. to differentiate homonyms and to unite variants deciding in each case whether the different meanings belong to the same polysemantic word or whether there are grounds to treat them as two or more separate words identical in form. In speech, however, as a rule only one of all the possible values is determined by the context, so that no ambiguity may normally arise. There is no danger, for instance, that the listener would wish to substitute the meaning СquickТ into the sentence: It is absurd to have hard and fast rules about anything2, or think that fast rules here are Сrules of dietТ.† Combinations when two or more meanings are possible are either deliberate puns, or result from carelessness. Both meanings of liver, i.e. Сa living personТ and Сthe organ that secretes bileТ are, for instance, intentionally present in the following play upon words:

1. УIs life worth living?Ф ФIt depends upon the liver.Ф

2. УWhat do you do with the fruit?Ф УWe eat what we can, and what we canТt eat we canФ

††† Very seldom can ambiguity of this kind interfere with understanding. The following example is unambiguous, although the words back and part have

1.     Arnold УThe English WordФ

2.     Oscar Wild УTwo Society ComediesФ

several homonyms, and maid and heart are polysemantic:

УMaid of Athens, ere we part,

Give, oh give me back my heartФ1

††† Homonymy exists in many languages, but in English it is particularly frequent, especially among monosyllabic words. In the list of 2540 homonyms given in the УOxford English DictionaryФ 89% are monosyllabic words and only 9.1% are words of two syllables. From the viewpoint of their morphological structure, they are mostly one-morpheme words.

2. Classifications of Homonyms


A.              The standard way of classification

(given by I.V. Arnold)

††† The most widely accepted classification is that recognizing homonyms proper, homophones and homographs.







A. Homonym proper

C. Homograph (or heteronym)


B. Homophone (or heteronym)

D. Allonym

††† Most words differ from each other in both spelling and pronunciation Ц therefore they belong to the sell D in this table Ц I shall call them allonyms. Not so many linguists distinguish this category. But it must be admitted that Keith C. Ivey, in his discussion of homonyms, recognizes this fact and writes:

These familiar with combinatorics may have noticed that there is a fourth possible category based on spelling and pronunciation: words that differ in spelling and pronunciation as well as meaning and origin (alligator/true). These pairs are technically known as different words.


1. G.G. Byron, Peter Washington УPoems of Lord ByronФ

††† Unfortunately, this seemingly neat solution doesn't work because all heteronyms are different words as Ivey's examples show. He illustrates homophones with board/bored, clearly two different words though pronounced alike, and his example of homographs (the verb desert/the noun desert) again shows, by their pronunciation, that they are different words. Even his example of a homonym -- words having both the same sound and spelling, as illustrated by "to quail and a quail" -- clearly shows they are different words. Lexicographers underline this point by writing separate entries for different words, whether or not they have the same spelling and pronunciation.

††† One could stipulate a phrase, like uniquely different words to represent category D, but this expedient is cumbersome and not transparent. A simpler solution, I believe, can be found by means of a neologism. It is not difficult to think of a suitable term.

††† An allonym is a word that differs in spelling and pronunciation from all other words, whereas both homonyms and heteronyms identify words that are the same, in some ways, as other words.

††† No doubt in ordinary usage, we will have little need for this term, although it would simplify lexical explanation if one could start by making the claim that the most words in English are allonyms. The clear exceptions are other groups.

††† Different words that are spelled and pronounced the same way are classed in cell A and are correctly called homonyms proper Ц but some writers, confusingly, call them heteronyms.

††† When different words are spelled the same way but pronounced differently, they belong to category B. It is precise to call them homographs and they are sometimes misleadingly called heteronyms. By contrast, when different words are pronounced the same way but spelled differently, we may properly call them homophones Ц rarely, they have also been called heteronyms.

Homonyms proper



††† Homonyms proper are words, as I have already mentioned, identical in pronunciation and spelling, like fast and liver above. Other examples are: back n Сpart of the bodyТ Ц back adv Сaway from the frontТ Ц back v Сgo backТ; ball n Сa gathering of people for dancingТ Ц ball n Сround object used in gamesТ; bark n Сthe noise made by dogТ Ц bark v Сto utter sharp explosive criesТ Ц bark n Сthe skin of a treeТ Ц bark n

Сa sailing shipТ; base n СbottomТ Ц base v Сbuild or place uponТ Ц base a СmeanТ; bay n Сpart of the sea or lake filling wide-mouth opening of landТ Ц bay n Сrecess in a house or roomТ Ц bay v СbarkТ Ц bay n Сthe European laurelТ.

††† The important point is that homonyms are distinct words: not different meanings within one word.




††† Homophones are words of the same sound but of different spelling and meaning:

air Ц hair; arms Ц alms; buy Ц by; him Ц hymn; knight Ц night; not Ц knot; or Ц oar; piece Ц peace; rain Ц reign; scent Ц cent; steel Ц steal; storey Ц story; write Ц right and many others.

††† In the sentence The play-wright on my right thinks it right that some conventional rite should symbolize the right of every man to write as he pleases the sound complex [rait] is a noun, an adjective, an adverb and a verb, has four different spellings and six different meanings. The difference may be confined to the use of a capital letter as in bill and Bill, in the following example:

УHow much is my milk bill?Ф

УExcuse me, Madam, but my name is John.Ф

††† On the other hand, whole sentences may be homophonic: The sons raise meat Ц The sunТs rays meet. To understand these one needs a wider context. If you hear the second in the course of a lecture in optics, you will understand it without thinking of the possibility of the first.






††† Homographs are words different in sound and in meaning but accidentally identical in spelling: bow [bou] Ц bow [bau]; lead [li:d] Ц lead [led]; row [rou] Ц row [rau]; sewer [Сsoue] Ц sewer [sjue]; tear [tie] Ц tear [tee]; wind [wind] Ц wind [waind] and many more.

††† It has been often argued that homographs constitute a phenomenon that should be kept apart from homonymy, as the object of linguistics is sound language. This viewpoint can hardly be accepted. Because of the effects of education and culture written English is a generalized national form of expression. An average speaker does not separate the written and oral form. On the contrary he is more likely to analyze the words in terms of letters than in terms of phonemes with which he is less familiar. That is why a linguist must take into consideration both the spelling and the pronunciation of words when analyzing cases of identity of form and diversity of content.

B. Classification given by A.I. Smirnitsky†††

††† The classification, which I have mentioned above, is certainly not precise enough and does not reflect certain important features of these words, and, most important of all, their status as parts of speech. The examples given their show those homonyms may belong to both to the same and to different categories of parts of speech. Obviously, the classification of homonyms should reflect this distinctive feather. Also, the paradigm of each word should be considered, because it has been observed that the paradigms of some homonyms coincide completely, and of others only partially.

††† Accordingly, Professor A.I. Smirnitsky classifieds homonyms into two large classes:

a)     full homonyms

b)    partial homonyms

Full homonyms



††† Full lexical homonyms are words, which represent the same category of parts of speech and have the same paradigm.

Match n Ц a game, a contest

Match n Ц a short piece of wood used for producing fire

Wren n Ц a member of the WomenТs Royal Naval Service

Wren n Ц a bird





Partial homonyms



†††††† Partial homonyms are subdivided into three subgroups:

A. Simple lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words, which belong to the same category of parts of speech. Their paradigms have only one identical form, but it is never the same form, as will be soon from the examples:

(to) found v

†††††† found v (past indef., past part. of to find)

(to) lay v

†††††† lay v (past indef. of to lie)

(to) bound v

†††††† bound v (past indef., past part. of to bind)

B. Complex lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words of different categories of parts of speech, which have identical form in their paradigms.

Rose n

Rose v (past indef. of to rise)

Maid n

Made v (past indef., past part. of to make)

Left adj

Left v (past indef., past part. of to leave)

Bean n

Been v (past part. of to be)

One num

Won v (past indef., past part. of to win)

C. Partial lexical homonyms are words of the same category of parts of speech which are identical only in their corresponding forms.

to lie (lay, lain) v

to lie (lied, lied) v

to hang (hung, hung) v

to hang (hanged, hanged) v

to can (canned, canned)

†††††††††††† (I) can (could)

C. Other aspects of classification



††† Various types of classification for homonyms have been suggested.

††† A comprehensive system may be worked out if we are guided by the theory of oppositions and in classifying the homonyms take into consideration the difference or sameness in their lexical and grammatical meaning, paradigm and basic form.

††† As both form and meaning can be further subdivided, the combination of distinctive features by which two words are compared becomes more complicated Ц there are four features: the form may be phonetical and graphical, the meaning Ц lexical and grammatical, a word may also have a paradigm of grammatical forms different from the basic form.

††† The distinctive features shown in the table below are lexical meaning (different denoted by A, or nearly the same denoted by A1), grammatical meaning (different denoted by B, or same by B1), paradigm (different denoted by C, or same denoted by C1), and basic form (different denoted by D, and same denoted by D1).

††† The term Уnearly same lexical meaningФ must not be taken too literally. It means only that the corresponding members of the opposition have some important invariant semantic components in common. УSame grammatical meaningФ implies that both members belong to the same part of speech.

††† Same paradigm comprises also cases when there is only one word form, i.e. when the words are unchangeable. Inconsistent combinations of features are crossed out in the table. It is, for instance, impossible for two words to be identical in all word forms and different in basic forms, or for two homonyms to show no difference either in lexical or grammatical meaning, because in this case they are not homonyms. That leaves twelve possible cases.

Difference and Identity in Words

A Different lexical meaning

A1 Nearly same lexical meaning

†B Different grammatical meaning

Partial Homonymy

Patterned Homonymy

D1 Same basic forms

light, -s n

light,-er,-est a

flat, -s n

flat,-er,-est a

for prp

for cj

before prp

before adv

before cj

eye, -s n

eye, -s, -ed,

-ing v

might n

may-might v

thought n

thought v

(Past Indef. Tense of think)

D Different basic form

B1 Same grammatical meaning

axis, axes n

axe Ц axes n

butЦbutted v

butt-butted v


D Different basic form

lie-lay-lain v

lie-lied-lied v

Full Homonymy

spring,-s n

spring,-s n

spring,-s n


Variants of the same polysemantic word

C Different paradigm

C1 Same paradigm or no changes

C Different paradigm

††† It goes without saying that this is a model that gives a general scheme. Actually a group of homonyms may contain members belonging to different groups in this classification. Take, for example, fell1 n СanimalТs hide or skin with the hairТ; fell2 n СhillТ and also Сa stretch of North-English moorlandТ; fell3† a СfierceТ (poet.); fell4 v Сto cut down treesТ and as a noun Сamount of timber cutТ; fell5 (the Past Indefinite Tense of the verb fall). This group may be broken into pairs, each of which will fit into one of the above describes divisions. Thus, fell1 - †fell2 †may be characterized as AB1C1D1, †fell1 Ц †fell4 as ABCD1 and fell4 Ц †fell5 as A1BCD.

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