[Another article in the Anthology that was not in the Spelling Progress Bulletins.]

[Spelling Reform Anthology §18.1 pp238-240]
[The article, More Homophones, in Bulletin Spring 1971 pdf, appears to be a sequel to this text, not the same text, as the Anthology table of contents suggests. There were no tables, as is implied.]

Section 18

Principles of English Spelling in Relation to Language

The Deceitful Words of English, by Newell W. Tune.

While not the only cause of confusion in the English language, these "look-alike, say differently" pairs or triplets of words are certainly the most irritating of vexing. In "The Psychology & Teaching of Spelling," (1934), Thomas G. Foran says, "Homonyms form one of the most difficult groups of words that pupils are called upon to spell." The English language is not the only language plagued with homonyms yet it appears to have more than its share and certainly more than are necessary - if any are really necessary at all' The Chinese have developed a method of distinguishing between homophones by the change of pitch for the several meanings of words pronounced the same. Unfortunately, it is not very practical to indicate pitch in printing, altho the word could be printed differently. Hence, the spoken language must be handed down from one person to another - from mother to child - largely by the sound and from one generation to another. This is an unfortunate barrier to reform.

The several terms used to describe these anomalies are confusing to many persons. Perhaps this is due largely to the vagueness of the definitions in the dictionaries. It didn't help matters very much when the catch-all term, "homonym" (meaning the same name) was invented as a general term to cover all cases of confusion and misunderstanding due to identities of either spelling or pronunciation, hence should include both homophones and homographs. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says of homonyms:

"1. a word having the same pronunciation as another but differing from it in origin, meaning and often (but not always in spelling, as 'bare' and 'bear'; a homophone, q.v., 2. one of two or more having the same name." The American College Dictionary does not clearly explain these words either, as "Homonym: 1. a word like another in sound and perhaps in spelling but different in meaning, as 'meat' and meet.' 2. a homophone. 3. a homograph. 4. a namesake." The Thorndike-Barnhart Desk Dictionary says the same as #1 of the A.C.D. Murray's Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 1933, is no better when it says: Homonym: the same word used to denote different things. b. Philology - applied to words having the same sound but different meanings." It said nothing about spelling. The Doubleday Encyclopedia, 1931, also confuses the issue with: "Homonym: a word which has the same sound or the same spelling as another, but a different meaning. Examples are: rite, write, & right; bear, (verb) and bear (substantive) and bare; fair (adjective), and fair (substantive) and fare. The term homophone has also been used for such words." (Editor's note: But which of these two classes of words?). How can a person have a clear understanding of these terms after reading such definitions?

Since none of the modern encyclopedias printed since 1950 even list any of these words, one has to go back to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. printed in 1910, in order to get a clearly understandable definition. It says of homonym: "(Greek) having the same name. A term in philology for those words which differ in sense but are alike either in sound or spelling or both. Words alike only in spelling but not in sound, e.g., 'bow', are sometimes called 'homographs,' and words alike only in sound but not in spelling, e.g., 'meat', 'meet' are called homophones." But that is all! No definition of any other homo- or hetro- word is given. Rev. Walter N. Skeat, in his Etymological Dictionary, 1882-1924, gives a list of homonyms, but his list includes only those homographs which are spelt and pronounced the same. No other published list, was found in the five years before the first edition of this monograph. Since 1962, two books were published. See addendum.

Another well known encyclopedia, Webster's New International Encyclopedia, 1925, not only gives a good description, but tells the difference between homonyms, homophones, and homographs. It says: "Homonyms: words that agree in form, but differ in origin and meaning. A familiar example of this class of words is sound, which in its different meanings goes back to the Latin Sonus, Scandinavian sund, and the Anglo-Saxon gesund and sundian; or the verb bear and the noun bear. Many homonyms are often distinguished by the accent, as absent (the adjective) and absent (the verb). Strictly speaking, these are not homonyms, but homographs, since the exact correspondence is confined to the spelling. A third term is also used, 'Homophones', words that agree in sound, but not necessarily in the spelling (and meaning), thus 'write, right, and rite,' or 'meet, meat, and mete' are homophones." It implies, but does not give examples of homophones that are spelled the same, such as bay, a color - a tree - an inlet of the sea - a division of a barn - a howl of a dog - the verb of the latter. Perhaps this is because so many words have multiple meanings.

Foreign encyclopedias show more lucid writing in their definitions. For example, the Enciclopedia Universal Illustrada, pub. by Hijos de Esposa, Barcelona, 1925, (translated): "Homonym, adj., said of two or more persons or things which have the same name, and words which have the same written form but have different meanings e.g. Tarifa (city) and tarifa (a tax exacted). See also homofono and homografo. A means of describing persons equal in namesake." The French La Grande Encyclopedie says "said thus of words which having the same pronunciation, are different in meaning. The words having the same spelling, as tendre (adjective) and tendre (verb), are called perfect homonyms; the others having a different spelling, are ordinary homonyms, for example: ver, verve, vert, vers, vair. It is due to the action of the phonetic rules," principally the rules of derivation, being the changing pronunciation which has given the same value to the sounds formerly different or which have left silent some of the letters formerly pronounced. In the derivative languages, the homonyms are such that are opposites of doublets (synonyms), thus they are called words of converging derivation. Homonyms are the principle source of a play on words (puns). Such lists of homonyms have been made, notably by Philipon de La Madelaine and by Poitevin."

Before continuing our search thru the dictionaries, let us see how many of these bewildering terms there are. First, there are two prefixes, homo- and hetero-. Then, there are three suffixes, nym, phone, and graph. Combined together they make six compound words - but not necessarily six different meanings, as some give the same meaning by another method of approach.

Let us consider the word "homophone", which means "same sound." All of the dictionaries do not give a complete description of the meanings of this word. Webster's Collegiate and Thorndike-Barnhart, 1958, are practically the same: Homophone, a letter or symbol (character) having the same sound as another. The letters c and k are homophones in the word 'cork'." While the American College Dictionary says: "Homophone, phonetics. 1. a word pronounced the same as another, whether spelled the same or not; as heir and air are homophones. 2. (in writing) an element which represents the same spoken unit as another, as (usually) English ks and x." Such a definition produces an overlapping with the meaning of homonym.

Homographs are something quite different, as the name indicates "same writing." Thorndike-Barnhart tells no more than you can derive from the name. Webster's Collegiate says: "Homograph, one of two or more words identical in orthography, but different in derivation and meaning, as fair (a market) and fair (beautiful); lead (to conduct) and lead (a metal)." Nothing is said about pronunciation, so one does not know for sure if the latter two words are pronounced the same or differently (which they are). More confusion! The American College Dict. only tells half of the information, with: "Homograph. a word of the same written form as another but of different origin and signification, as homer (a home run) and homer (a unit of measure.)" Hence, we are forced to go abroad to get the entire information. The Enciclopedia Universal Illustrada says: "Homograph. (Etim. from Gr. same, and to write), adj. applied to words of different meaning which are written in the same manner (spelling), e.g. haya (tree) and haya (past person of the verb 'haber'). In the studies of reading made easy for the deaf and deafmutes, it is not rare to find the expression 'homograph', which has as its foundation in the action to consider the movements of the lips and of the tongue to speak in what manner letters constitute the word. see homophone." In other words, to try to find which letters represent the sounds spoken.

The hetro-family of words is even less well known, not only to the public but apparently also to the dictionary makers and publishers. While Webster's, the A.C.D. and Murrays list hetronyms, the Thorndike-Barnhart fails to mention any words with this prefix. Webster says: "Hetronym. a word spelled like another but differing in sound and sense, as sow (a pig) and sow (to strew seed). opposed to homonym. 2. a different name for the same thing, especially a name that exactly translates a name in another language, as bread is a hetronym of the German word: brot." No cross reference is made to homograph, which is exactly the same as class 1, hence one wonders if this lack of cross-reference is due to carelessness, confusion or some other reason. The A.C.D. also fails to give the cross-reference. Murray's Shorter Oxford English Dict. 1955, gives: "Heteronym. one or other of two heteronymous terms. 2. a word spelled like another but having a different sound and meaning; opposite to homonym & synonym, 1889." Yet it has no reference to what it is synonomous. The first part of the definition violates the first rule of defining: that the word being defined shall not be used in the definition.

As for heterophones, all of the dictionaries fail to list this word, including Webster's Collegiate, Webster's New International, American College, Thorndike-Barnhart, Murray's ShorterOxford, Murray's New English Dict. on Historic Principles, Funk & Wagnall's New Std. !956, Winston, 1946, Century, vol IV, 1911, and all of the encyclopedias. Apparently none of them even heard of .he word, yet they misuse another word to define just what a heterophone is intended to mean (by dissecting its parts):"different sound" (for the same spelling).

The misused word is heterograph. Many dictionaries seem to be unsure of its use, so they omit this word. These are: Thorndike-Barnhart, Murray's Shorter Oxford, 1955, Winston, Century, Collier's. Most of those that do list the word, give only a definition similar to that of the American College Dict.: "Heterography. a spelling different from current usage." Only 3 give the complete (albeit partly erroneous) definition: Webster's Collegiate says (and Webster's New International slavishly copies it). "Heterography. a spelling differing from standard current usage. b. spelling in which the same letters represent different sounds in different words or syllables, as in current English orthography, g as in get, and in ginger." Funk & Wagnals says: "Heterography. 1. orthography in which the same letter represents different sounds in different words or syllables, as c in camp and cent. 2. spelling varying from the standard. 3. heterophemy. a. relating to or characterized by heterography." Apparently none of these three tried to analyze the word "heterograph" to see if it was intended to mean what they say it does. Even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin should tell a person: "different writing," not "different sound." If so many dictionaries are confused, omissive or incomplete, how can the general public be expected to have a clear conception of the meaning of these words? Who should be considered responsible for these words being confused or deceitful? - the dictionary makers?, the teachers?

Here are definitions for each of these words which the author hopes will clear up the existing confusion by classifying property each word according to its derivation.

"Homonym. 1. the same sounding name (altho it may be spelt differently). 2. Said of two words spelt and pronounced alike but differing in origin, meaning and/or usage, as bay, a color - a tree - an inlet of the sea - a division of a barn - a howl of a dog - the verb of the latter." This definition is in conformance with the list of homonyms compiled by Rev. Walter W. Skeat, Litt.D, D.C.L, LL.D, Ph.D, F.B.A. in the Etymological Dictionary. He was considered to be one of the most famous authorities on English words.

"Homophone. 1. a letter or character which expresses the same sound as another, as c and k in cook, qu and key. 2. a word having the same pronunciation as another, but differing from it in origin, meaning and spelling, as bear and bare. 3. said of the names of two or more persons or things having the same pronunciation but different spellings." This method of classification separates homophones from homonyms and is also in conformance with Skeat's list. It has the definite advantage of removing the confusion between the two terms.

"Homograph. 1. a homonym. 2. one of two or more words identical in spelling, but different in derivation and meaning, and sometimes in pronunciation, such as lead (verb) and lead (p.p. of verb, to lead), and lead (a metal, plumbus); fair (beautiful) and fair (a market). Includes homonyms as well as heteronyms and heterophones." While this makes this term the largest inclusive term of these six, it is still in conformance with present dictionaries. This definition removes doubts as to the similarities and differences between the six words.

"Heteronym. 1. a word spelt the same as another, but differing in sound and meaning, as sow (a pig) and sow (to strew seed). 2. a different name for the same thing, esp. a name that exactly translates a name in another language, as bread is a heteronym of the German word brot." (Webster's New International, 1934). # 2 is not included in the meaning of homograph, q.v." This definition is an exact quotation, with the addition of the last sentence.

"Heterophone. 1. said of two or more syllables or words of different pronunciation and meaning but spelt the same. Frequently, these are different parts of speech, such as to read (verb) and read (p.p. of to read), absent (adjective) and absent (verb). 2. spelling in which the same letters represent different sounds in different words, as g in get and ginger, ch in church, and school, loch, yacht, machine. See homograph, which includes both heterophones and # 1 of heteronyms." This new definition fits more properly with the facts.

"Heterograph. 1. a spelling differing from standard current usage. 2. spelling in which different letters represent the same sound" as g in gin and j in jinn, also these words sea and see; bear and bare. A homophone, q.v." This new definition fits in properly with the facts. The list of syllabic heterographs is only representative, as these are almost limitless. They are not considered to be homophones.

The following tables include examples of each word classification. A comprehensive list of homonyms (as of 1882-1909) can be found in Skeat: Etymological Dictionary. This list has 1782 homonyms in 784 sets of pairs, triplets, quadruplets (bay has six meanings). Most of these are also correctly termed homographs. It does not say that the list is complete, and it does not include such commonly known homonyms as molar (pertaining to teeth) or (pertaining to mass of matter), and such homographs as minute (time), (small). Undoubtedly there are many new homonyms created by new scientific uses, inventions, and the consequent terminology.

The list of homophones is admittedly incomplete. The editor will welcome calling attention to omissions to any of these lists. The list of homographs is supposed to be fairly complete, but additions have come in from time to time.

Almost any kind of a reform of our spelling would, by its very nature, eliminate all the homographs and consequently all of the present confusion caused by them. At the same time, all completely phonetic systems of reform and many of the systems of partial reform, would create more homographs. Many persons have thought that this is undesirable and consequently have weakened their proposed systems of reform by perpetuating differences in spelling for homophones. Apparently, they have never noticed that thousands of words in the dictionary have multiple meanings. "Run" tops the list with 104 different meanings, break has 43, cut 42, fall 64, light 64, make 57, spring 40, square 39, strike 68, turn 62, to mention a few.

However, Dr. Benjamin Franklin wisely explained that spelling differences to indicate a difference in meaning is unnecessary, in his letter to Mary Stevenson, as follows: dated Sept. 28, 1768:

"Dear Madam: The objection that you make to rectifying our alphabet, 'that it will be attended with inconveniences and difficulties' is a natural one; for it always occurs when any reformation is proposed, whether in religion government, laws, or even as low as roads and wheel carriges. The true question then is not whether there will be no difficulties or inconveniences, but whether the difficulties may not be surmounted; and whether the convenience; will not, one the whole, be greater than the inconvenience. In this case, the difficulties are only in the beginning of the practice; when they are overcome, the advantages are lasting. To either you or me, who spell well in the present mode, I imagine the difficulty of changing that mode for the new is not so great, but that we might perfectly get over it in a week's writing. As to those who do not spell well, if the two difficulties are compared, viz., that of teaching them true spelling in the present mode and that of teaching them the new alphabet and the new spelling according to it, I am confident that the latter would be by far the least. They naturally fall into the new method already, as much as the imperfection of their alphabet will permit; their present spelling is only bad because it is contrary to the present bad rules; under the new rules it would be good. The difficulty of learning to spell well in the old way is so great that few attain it; thousands and thousands writing on to old age without ever being able to acquire it. 'Tis besides, a difficulty continually increasing, as the sound gradually varies more and more from the spelling; and to foreigners it makes the learning to pronounce our language, as written in our books, almost impossible.

Now, as to 'the inconveniences' you mention. The first is, that 'all our etymologies would be lost, consequently, we could not ascertain the meaning of words: Etymologies are at present very uncertain; but such as they are, the old books would preserve them, and the etymologists would there find them. Words, in the course of time, change their meanings, as well as their spellings and pronunciation; and we do not look at etymology for their present meanings. If I should call a man a knave and a villian, he would hardly be satisfied with my telling him that one of the words originally signified only a lad or a servant; and the other, an under-ploughman, or the inhabitant of a villiage. It is from our present use only, the meaning of words is to be determined.

Your second inconvenience is, that 'the distinction between words of different meaning and similar sound would be destroyed.' That distinction is already destroyed in pronouncing them; and we relie on the sense alone of the sentence to ascertain which of the several words, similar in sound, we intend. If this is sufficient in the rapidity of discourse, it will be much more so in written sentences which may be read liesurely, and attended to more particularly in the case of difficulty, than we can attend to a past sentence while the speaker is hurring us along with new ones.

Your third inconvenience is, that 'all books already written would be useless.' This inconvenience would only come on gradually, in the course of ages. You and I, and other now living readers, would hardly forget the use of them. People would long learn to read the old writing, though they practised the new. And the inconvenience is not greater than what has already happened in a similar case in Italy. Formerly its inhabitants all spoke and wrote Latin; as the language changed, the spelling followed it.

It is true, that at present a mere unlearned Italian cannot read the Latin books; though they are still read and understood by many. But, if the spelling had never been changed, he would now have found it much more difficult to read and write in his own language; for written words would have had no relation to sounds; they would have only stood for things; so that if he would express in writing the idea he has when he sounds the word 'vescovo,' he must use the letters 'episcopus.' In short, whatever the difficulties and inconveniences now are, they will be more easily surmounted now than hereafter; and sometime or other, it must be done, or our writing will become the same as with the Chinese, as to the difficulty of teaming and using it. And it would already have been such, if we had continued the Saxon spelling and writing used by our forefathers.

I am, my dear friend, yours affectionately, B. Franklin.


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