Trying to make sense of linguistic terms can sometimes be a challenge. Especially when the terms are very similar in both meaning and sound. Such is the case with homonyms, homophones, and homographs. If you add to that list “homomorphs”, the confusion level increases exponentially. As with many technical terms, the differences between them are actually quite small, so they’re easily mistaken for each other. When trying to tell them apart, it’s a good idea to take a look at their etymology, which can provide some clues.
What the difference is between these complicated-sounding terms and how to use them correctly is the topic of today’s blog post.
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Greek to the rescue
As with many scientific terms, the origin of these is Greek. The “homo” part got picked up by the Romans, who used it to mean “man”, and today it’s mostly recognised as the name of the genus we (Homo sapiens sapiens) belong in together with our fellow primates. However, that is not entirely the use the ancient Greeks put the word. There, homós meant “same” and was opposed to héteros, meaning “other” or “different”.
So, what this short etymological lesson has shown us is that all of the four terms – homograph, homomorph, homonym, and homophone – must have something to do with sameness. But if we dig deeper into Greek, we’ll find it even more useful when trying to figure out their meanings.
“Homomorphs” carry that notion of sameness into morphology. That is the linguistic study of the structure of words, with morpho- coming from Greek and referring to anything structure or form-related. But what on Earth could same structure mean when it comes to words?
Essentially, the “morph” part of homomorphs refers to morphemes – the smallest part of language that carries a meaning (i.e the structure of words). So, for example, worker has two morphemes – work and er, with the first meaning any type of labour and the second carrying the meaning of someone performing the activity. And so homomorphs are morphemes with the same form but different meanings. From our example, you can already see that -er can mean a doer or a human agent, but it can also be used to compare words – strong and stronger, or to create informal forms of words – six-footer or fresher. There are other meanings to -er but you get the drift – all of these uses are homomorphs of the single morpheme.
So, we’ve seen that the prefix homo- signifies sameness. And when we combine that with the suffix -graph, we’ll have a pretty clear picture of the word’s meaning. From the words “photograph” and “autograph”, it should be clear that –graph means something written or drawn.
So, combining the two meanings, we get that a homograph is a word written the same way. And indeed, that is what it is. Homographs are words that are written (spelled) the same but have different meanings. They may or may not also sound the same.
For example, bass can mean either a type of wood, fish, or voice. Notice how the pronunciation for bass the fish or wood is different to that of bass the voice. That means that while the fish and wood are also homophones, the fish and the voice are only homographs. To further complicate things, there is an additional term for that last type of words – heteronyms, but that’s better left for another blog post.
With -phone meaning “speech sound”, it’s probably pretty obvious what role homophones play. These are words that are pronounced the same, regardless of whether they also share the same spelling.
Take, for example, right and write – these are examples of homophones which are spelled differently, while bear, meaning to support or tolerate, and bear, meaning the animal, are examples of homophones which also share spelling. However, it’s important to remember that the defining part here is the pronunciation.
The –nym part of homonyms means “name” but that doesn’t really make things much clearer. What does same name mean when we’re talking about words? Is it the way they’re pronounced? The way they’re spelled? Since that’s a difficult choice, the right answer is c – all of the above. So, strictly speaking, homonyms are used to describe words that are both homographs and homonyms at the same time – they share both spelling and pronunciation. In our examples then, bass the fish and bass the wood are homonyms, as are bear the animal and bear meaning to support, carry.
However, outside of academic texts where it’s important to be very precise, “homonym” has taken on a wider meaning. So, in everyday language, “homonym” is essentially an umbrella term that covers all the words that have different meanings but the same pronunciation, spelling, or both.
Conclusion – All terms signify sameness of different language aspects
As you might have guessed, the homo– part of these terms refers to sameness relating to a specific aspect of language. Homomorphs are morphemes that look the same but have different meanings, like the suffix -er in our example. Homographs emphasise the sameness of spelling while homophones focus on pronunciation. And while homonyms should essentially refer to words that are both pronounced and spelled the same, the term has taken on a wider meaning in everyday language and these distinctions have disappeared. However, when using these terms in a technical context, it’s still important to be precise about which one you mean.