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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Homophones – what are they and why do they exist at all?

Homophones are words that sound the same but have two or more distinct meanings. This phenomenon occurs in all spoken languages. Take for instance the English words FLOWER and FLOUR. These words sound the same, even though they differ in several letters when written down (therefore called heterographic homophones). Other homophones sound the same and also look the same, such as the words BANK (bench/river bed) and BANK (financial institution) in both Dutch and English. Such words are sometimes called homographic homophones. Words with very similar sounds but different meanings also exist between languages. An example is the word WIE, meaning 'who' in Dutch, but 'how' in German.

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One might think that homophones would create serious problems for the hearer or listener. How can one possibly know what a speaker means when she says a sentence like "I hate the mouse"? Indeed, many studies have shown that listeners are a little slower to understand ambiguous words than unambiguous ones. However, in most cases, it is evident from the context what the intended meaning is. The above sentence might for example appear in the contexts of "I don't mind most of my daughter's pets, but I hate the mouse" or "I love my new computer, but I hate the mouse". People normally figure out the intended meaning so quickly, that they don't even perceive the alternative. Preceding linguistic context and common world knowledge thus help us in understanding a speaker’s intended message.

Why do homophones exist? It seems much less confusing to have separate sounds for separate concepts. Linguists take sound change as an important factor that can lead to the existence of homophones. For instance, in the early 18th century the first letter of the English word KNIGHT was no longer pronounced, making it a homophone with the word NIGHT. Also language contact creates homophones. The English word DATE was relatively recently adopted into Dutch, becoming a homophone with the already existing word DEED. Some changes over time thus create new homophones, whereas other changes undo the homophonic status of a word. Now the Dutch verb form ZOUDT (would) is no longer commonly used, the similarly sounding noun ZOUT (salt) is losing its homophonic status.

Finally, a particularly nice characteristic of homophones is that they are often used in puns or as stylistic elements in literary texts. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene IV, line 13-16), Romeo for instances uses a homophone when he refrains from following up his friend Mercutio‘s advice to dance:

Mercutio:              Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.

Romeo:                Not I, believe me: you have dancing shoes

                          With nimble soles: I have a soul of lead

                          So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.

Among other things, it is such elegant use of homophones that has led to Shakespeare’s literary success.

 By David Peeters and Antje S. Meyer

Further reading:

Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Cutler, A., & Van Donselaar, W. (2001). Voornaam is not (really) a homophone: Lexical prosody and lexical access in Dutch. Language and speech, 44(2), 171-195. (link)

Rodd, J., Gaskell, G., & Marslen-Wilson, W. (2002). Making sense of semantic ambiguity: Semantic competition in lexical access. Journal of Memory and Language, 46(2), 245-266. (link)

Tabossi, P. (1988). Accessing lexical ambiguity in different types of sentential contexts. Journal of Memory and Language, 27(3), 324-340. (link)

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
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