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Homographs: Words That Are Spelled the Same but Sound Different

English is filled with words that are spelled the same but sound different. We dug in and found a few interesting reasons.

One of our listeners named Gregg wrote in recently with a question. He wanted to know if there’s a term for words that change their definition when their syllable emphasis changes.

He mentioned the word “invalid” as an example. According to Merriam-Webster, the word means “being without foundation in fact or truth” when you stress the second syllable (as in, in-VAL-id), but it means “one that is sickly or disabled” when you stress the first syllable (as in, IN-val-id).

Good question, Gregg! There is a term for words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. They’re called “homographs.” The “homo” root means “same,” and the “graph” root means “write.”

And as Gregg pointed out, some homographs are pronounced differently, like “wind” (the movement of air) and “wind” (to coil something like a string around another object). Others are pronounced the same, like “odd” (meaning strange) and “odd” (meaning a number that can’t be divided evenly by two).

Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if we just had separate words for totally separate concepts? Here’s why we don’t.

Some Homographs Have Different Etymologies

Some homographs have different etymologies. For example, the verb “match” comes from an Old English word that means “equal” or “mate,” whereas the noun “match” comes from a Greek word that meant “lamp wick”: “myxa.” (And the word “myxa,” in turn, was originally “mucus, based on [the] notion of [a] wick dangling from the spout of a lamp like snot from a nostril.” I bet you never thought that word etymology could be so disgusting!)

Another example is the word “compact.” The noun “compact” (meaning an agreement) comes from the Latin verb “compacisci,” meaning to covenant together. The past tense of this verb was “compactum.” In contrast, the verb “to compact” (meaning to press tightly together) comes from the Latin verb “compingĕre,” which had the same meaning. And the past tense of that verb was “compactus.”

Even some words that seem similar in meaning can have different origins. For example, think of the noun “bow,” as in a bow and arrow, and the verb “bow,” meaning to bend over. Both of these words suggest objects that have a curved shape. But the noun “bow” comes from the Old English word “boga,” referring to an archery bow, whereas the verb “bow” comes from the Old English word “búgan,” meaning to bend.

Some Homographs Are Created by Syllable Stress

There’s another reason two words that are spelled the same can have different sounds and meanings. It’s because English is what’s called a “stress-based language.” In this kind of language, the meaning of words can change significantly depending on what syllable in the word we stress.

For example, compare the word “MIN-ute” with “min-UTE.” These two words are spelled exactly the same but have different meanings. Same thing with “PRO-ject” and “pro-JECT.”

Stress-based languages have some predictable rules. For example, in two-syllable words, nouns and adjectives usually have the first syllable stressed. Think of the words PIC-ture, TA-ble, and FLOW-er, for example.

In contrast, two-syllable words that are verbs usually have the second syllable stressed. Think of pro-VIDE, com-POSE, or con-DUCT.

Our ability to create different meanings by stressing different syllables means that English has tons of homographs. Think of OB-ject versus ob-JECT, PRE-sent versus pre-SENT, IM-port versus im-PORT, SUS-pect versus sus-PECT. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Not all languages work this way. In contrast to stress-based languages like English, there are syllable-timed languages. In those languages, every syllable in a word has about the same stress. You can hear this distinction if you compare the word for “library” in English versus Spanish.

In English, we say “LI-brary,” stretching out the “I” sound and saying it more clearly than the “-brary” part. “LI-brary.”

The same word in Spanish is “biblioteca.” Each syllable in that word gets about the same emphasis. “Bib-li-o-te-ca.”

Another example is the word for trash. In English, we say “GAR-bage,” emphasis on the “GAR” and hardly saying the “uh” sound in “-bage” at all. When we swallow a mid-word vowel like that, by the way, it’s called a “schwa.”

In contrast, the Spanish word for garbage is “basura.” We pronounce each vowel sound in that word clearly. “Ba-su-ra.” None of them are swallowed.

Some Homographs Are Created Through Verb Conjugation

I’ll say one final thing about homographs. Occasionally, they are created almost accidentally when we conjugate verbs. Think about the words “sewer,” meaning a drainpipe, and “sewer,” meaning one who sews. The words aren’t related at all. They just happen to be spelled the same because we add the suffix “-er” to describe someone who does an action.

We see the same thing with “batter,” meaning a mixture of two or more ingredients, and “batter,” meaning one who swings a bat.

In summary, To sum up, homographs are words that have different meanings but are spelled the same. They may or may not have different origins and different pronunciations. Thanks again for the question, Greg!