Homonymy in English

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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 WordsA Different lexical meaningA1 Nearly same lexical meaning B Different grammatical meaningPartial HomonymyPatterned HomonymyD1 Same basic formslight, -s n

light,-er,-est a

flat, -s n

flat,-er,-est afor prp

for cjbefore prp

before adv

before cjeye, -s n

eye, -s, -ed,

-ing vmight n

may-might vthought n

thought v

(Past Indef. Tense of think)


D Different basic formB1 Same grammatical meaningaxis, axes n

axe axes n

butbutted v

butt-butted v

SynonymsD Different basic formlie-lay-lain v

lie-lied-lied vFull Homonymy

spring,-s n

spring,-s n

spring,-s n


Variants of the same polysemantic wordC Different paradigmC1 Same paradigm or no changesC 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 animals hide or skin with the hair; fell2 n hill and also a stretch of North-English moorland; fell3 a fierce (poet.); fell4 v to cut down trees and as a noun amount of timber cut; 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 fell4 as ABCD1 and fell4 fell5 as A1BCD.





3. Sources of Homonyms



There are a lot of different sources of homonyms in English language, so lets talk about some of them, which are the most important ones, due to my point of view.


One source of homonyms is phonetic changes, which words undergo in the coarse of their historical development. As a result of such changes, two or more words, which were formally pronounced differently, may develop identical sound forms and thus become homonyms.


Night and knight, for instance, were not homonyms in Old English as the initial k in the second word was pronounced, and not dropped as it is in its modern sound form: O.E. kniht (cf. O.E. niht). A more complicated change of form brought together another pair of homonyms: to knead (O.E. cneadan) and to need (O.E. neodian).


In Old English the verb to write had the form writan, and the adjective right had the forms reht, riht. The noun sea descends from the Old English form sae, and the verb to see from O.E. seon. The noun work and the verb to work also had different forms in Old English: wyrkean and weork respectively.

Borrowing is another source of homonyms. A borrowed word may, in the final stage of its phonetic adaptation, duplicate in form either a native word or another borrowing. So, in the group of homonyms rite, n to write, v right, adj the second and the third words are of native origin whereas rite is a Latin borrowing (<Lat. ritus). In the pair piece, n peace, n, the first originates from Old French pais, and the second from O.F. (<Gaulish) pettia. Bank, n a shore is a native word, and bank, n a financial institution is an Italian borrowing. Fair, adj ( as in a fair deal, its not fair) is native, and fair, n a gathering of buyers and sellers is a French borrowing. Match, n a game; a contest of skill, strength is native, and match, n a slender short piece of wood used for producing fire is a French borrowing.


Word building also contributes significantly to the growth of homonymy, and the most important type in this respect is undoubtedly conversion. Such pairs of words as comb, n to comb, v; pale, adj to pale, v; to make, v make, n are numerous in the vocabulary. Homonyms of this type, which are the same in sound and spelling but refer to different categories of parts of speech, are called lexico-grammatical homonyms.


Shortening is a further type of word building, which increases the number of homonyms. Fan, n in the sense of enthusiastic admirer of some kind of sport or of an actor, singer, etc. is a shortening produced from fanatic. Its homonym is a Latin borrowing fan, n which denotes an implement for waving lightly to produce a cool current of air. The noun rep, n denoting a kind of fabric (cf. with the Rus. penc) has three homonyms made by shortening: rep, n (< repertory), rep, n (< representative), rep, n (< reputation); all the three are informal words.


During World War II girls serving in the Womens Royal Naval Service (an auxiliary of the British Royal Navy) were jokingly nicknamed Wrens (informal). This neologistic formation made by shortening has the homonym wren, n a small bird with dark brown plumage barred with black (Rus. крапивник).


Words made by sound-imitation can also form pairs of homonyms with other words: bang, n a loud, sudden, explosive noise bang, n a fringe of hair combed over the forehead. Also: mew, n the sound the cat makes mew, n a sea gull mew, n a pen in which poultry is fattened mews small terraced houses in Central London.


The above-described sources of homonyms have one important feature common. In all the mentioned cases the homonyms developed from two or more different words, and their similarity is purely accidental. (In this respect, conversion certainly presents an exception for in pairs of homonyms formed by conversion one word of the pair is produced from the other: a find < to find.)

Now we come to a further source of homonyms, which differs essentially from all the above cases. Two or more homonyms can originate from different meanings of the same word when, for some reason, the semantic structure of the word breaks into several parts. This type of formation of homonyms is called disintegration or split of polysemy.


From what has been said above about polysemantic words, it should become clear that the semantic structure of a polysemantic word presents a system within which all its constituent meanings are held together by logical associations. In most cases, the function of the arrangement and the unity if determined by one of the meanings.



Fire, n:

  1. Flame
  2. An instance of destructive burning: a forest fire
  3. Burning material in a stove, fireplace: There is a fire in the next room. A camp fire.
  4. The shooting of guns: to open (cease) fire.
  5. Strong feeling, passion, and enthusiasm: a speech lacking fire.


If this meaning happens to disappear from words semantic structure, associations between the rest of the meanings may be severed, the semantic structure loses its unity and fails into two or more parts which then become accepted as independent lexical units.

Let us consider the history of three homonyms:


board, n a long and thin piece of timber

board, n daily meals, esp. as provided for pay, e.g. room and board

board, n an official group of persons who direct or supervise some activity, e.g. a board of directors.

It is clear that the meanings of these three words are in no way associated with one another. Yet, most larger dictionaries still enter a meaning of board that once held together all these other meanings a table. It developed from the meaning a piece of timber by transference based on contiguity (association of an object and the material from which it is made). The meanings meals and an official group of persons developed from the meaning table, also by transference based on contiguity: meals are easily associated with a table on which they are served; an official group of people in authority are also likely to discuss their business round a table.

Nowadays, however, the item of the furniture, on which meals are served and round which boards of directors meet, is no longer denoted by the word board but by the French Norman borrowing table, and board in this meaning, though still registered by some dictionaries, can very well be marked as archaic as it is no longer used in common speech. That is why, with the intrusion of the borrowed table, the word board actually lost its corresponding meaning. But it