Saturday, August 19, 2000

August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000


COMING from the Greek homonumon, meaning same word, homonym refers to one of two or more words that are identical in sound or spelling but different in meaning. There are three kinds of homonyms: homophones, homographs and simply homonyms. Words that sound alike but don’t look alike, that is, are spelled differently are homophones. Hair, hare and hare, coarse and course, there and their, fare and fair, knight and night. Homophone comes from the Greek homo, meaning same, and phone, meaning sound. The occurrence of homophones is largely a matter of historical chance, in which words with distinct meanings sound the same: byre, a cowshed; and buyer, one who buys. Since homophony depends upon pronunciation, words may be homophones in one variety of English but not in another. Father and farther are homophonous in British English, but not in American English.

Homograph incorporates the Greek graph, something written. Here, words are identical in spelling but differ in meaning, origin and pronunciation. For instance, in entrance, the noun, stress is on the first syllable — a door or gate; and in entrance, the verb, stress is on the second syllable —to put in a trance. Lead, the verb, rhyming with deed, is to conduct, guide; while lead, the noun, rhyming with dead is a metal.

Homonyms are words that are identical in sound and spelling but different in meaning. For instance, bank, a slope; bank, a place for money; and bank, a bench or row of switches. Another bank has emerged in the sense of safe storage — eye-bank, blood bank and organs bank. One can’t predict how many more the future will bring in this age of clones and genomes.

In this land of shibboleths like har-har mahadev and jai jawan, jai kishan, the next kind of word — is all too familiar — the holophrase. It come from Greek holos, meaning whole, and phrases, meaning speech. This is a word functioning as a phrase or sentence: the imperative Go!, the salutatory Cheers! or the winning youngster’s triumphant Yes! A holophrase could also be an idiomatic expression: How do you do or All’s well that ends well. Catchwords and slogans fall under this category too: happy-go-lucky, never-say-die, and eat, drink and be merry. The language children use just when they start speaking, which makes sense only in the immediate situation is also holophrastic, like hungry! for I’m hungry.



Modern Hindi contains some 600 pairs of words, at times groups of words even, which are identical in sound and spelling but widely differing in origin and meaning. These are all homonyms, as in Hindi there is no separate distinction between homographs and homophones. All homophones are homographs and vice-versa. Some homonyms are directly inherited from classical Sanskrit. Kanak (gold, wheat, an intoxicating herb), baal (boy, hair) and uttar (North, reply), to name a few. A large number of words share features of pronunciation. For example, sona (gold, to sleep), tana (trunk of a tree, stretched) and batna (to be divided, to wind, an unguent substance). Grammatical developments also sometimes lead to the formation of homonyms. Jita as the past tense of jina, meaning alive, is also the past tense of jitna, meaning conquered; and diya is both a lamp and the past tense of dena or give. Another dimension to Hindi homonyms is the presence of tatsam words in literary Hindi side by side with the tadbhav words of everyday speech. Bhavaj in tadbhav is sister-in-law and produced from sentiment in tatsam; tal is bottom in tatsam and fry in tadbhav.