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Language Stumbling Blocks: Homonyms, Homographs, and Homophones

December 27, 2018

For non-native speakers, resolving ambiguity that occurs between "what was said" and "what was perceived" can be a linguistic challenge. Although most languages have homonymy at a variety of levels, a descriptive analysis of signals is always a helpful guideline for new English speakers. This provides the student with a better understanding of the most common sources of structural ambiguities as well as where these stumbling blocks are most likely to occur. Let's start by reviewing the definitions of three common language stumbling blocks below:

  • Homonyms - Each of two or more words have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings and origins. For example, "I won the pole for the race" but "the pole was too short for the flag".
  • Homophones - Each of two or more words have the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling. For example, "I bought a new car" but "I knew my car would break down soon".
  • Homographs - Each of two or more words spelled the same but not necessarily pronounced the same and have different meanings and origins. For example: "I bow to the Queen" but "I use a bow to hunt small game".

When observing a linguistic situation involving homonymy, it is obvious that ambiguity must be resolved by some additional element (linguistic or situational) or a differing intonation. Although homonymy is not a linguistic feature that is peculiar to the English language, American speakers have certainly embraced accentual differences and the use of irregular verbs in confusing sentence structures. In the Roger's Reference: Dictionary of Homonyms and Homophones, the author claims to have documented 6,139 English language homonyms. It should be noted that perceptions of linguistic similarity are somewhat subjective and differ from one source to the next. 

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