Homographs are words which have the same spelling but different meanings. They may or may not have the same pronunciation.
Here the word has the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings:
bear – beə (a big animal living in Yellowstone park)
bear – beə (to carry a burden or weight)
But in this case the word has same spelling but different pronunciations and meanings:
bow – bəʊ (used to play the violin)
bow – baʊ (to bend from the waist when meeting the Queen)
The word homograph comes from Greek and explains what it means: ὁμός or homos meaning same and γράφω or grapho meaning write.
Origins of Homographs
Sometimes homographs come from one origin.
For example the Latin word pasta (which means dough) gave rise to the word pasty which is a kind of pie (the best ones are Cornish and filled with potato and spices). This is pronounced: ‘pæstɪ. But when someone is very pale looking and has skin the color of white dough, we say they are pasty pronounced ‘peɪstɪ.
Alternatively, homographs can come from different roots but just happen to have the same spelling.
For example, the word sewer (meaning the person who plants seeds) comes originally from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to bind together. Meanwhile the word sewer (a drainage pipe) comes from Old French meaning sluice from a pond.
It is just coincidence that the words are spelt the same.
Type of Homographs
When homographs have the same spelling, the same pronunciation and different meanings they are known as Homonyms.
bank = building full of money
bank = by the river
When homographs have the same spelling, different pronunciation and different meanings they are known as Heteronyms.
row = ˈroʊ = line
row = ˈraʊ = argue
This table puts homographs, homonyms and heteronyms in context:
type of word spelling pronunciation meaning example
Homograph same same or different different bank = building full of money; bank = by the river row = ˈroʊ = line; row = ˈraʊ = argue
Heteronym same different different row = ˈroʊ = line; row = ˈraʊ = argue
Homonym same same different bank = building full of money; bank = by the river
Homophone same or different same different bank = building full of money; bank = by the river pause = break; paws = dog’s feet
Heterograph different same different pause = break; paws = dog’s feet different same same color = color
Synonym different different same same = equal = alike same different same leisure = ˈle.ʒə (BrE) leisure = ˈle.ʒər (AmE)
Homophones – words which have the same spelling & pronunciation but different meanings
Synonyms – words with different spelling and pronunciation, but the same meaning
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IWeb TEFL Team