Имя материала: Лексикология английского языка

Автор: Антрушина Галина Борисовна

Chapter 9 homonyms: words of the same form


Homonyms are words which are identical in sound and spelling, or, at least, in one of these aspects, but different in their meaning.


E. g.   bank, n. — a shore

bank, n.— an institution for receiving,

lending, exchanging, and   

safeguarding money

ball, n. — a sphere; any spherical body

ball, n. — a large dancing party


English vocabulary is rich in such pairs and even groups of words. Their identical forms are mostly accidental: the majority of homonyms coincided due to phonetic changes which they suffered during their development.

If synonyms and antonyms can be regarded as the treasury of the language's expressive resources, homonyms are of no interest in this respect, and one cannot expect them to be of particular value for communication. Metaphorically speaking, groups of synonyms and pairs of antonyms are created by the vocabulary system with a particular purpose whereas homonyms are accidental creations, and therefore purposeless.

In the process of communication they are more of an encumbrance, leading sometimes to confusion and misunderstanding. Yet it is this very characteristic which makes them one of the most important sources of popular humour.

The pun is a joke based upon the play upon words of similar form but different meaning (i. e. on homonyms) as in the following:


"A tailor guarantees to give each of his customers a perfect fit."


(The joke is based on the homonyms: I. fit, n. — perfectly fitting clothes; II. fit, n. — a nervous spasm.)

Homonyms which are the same in sound and spelling (as the examples given in the beginning of this chapter) are traditionally termed homonyms proper.

The following joke is based on a pun which makes use of another type of homonyms:



"Yes, sir." ,

"What's this?"

"It's bean soup, sir."

"Never mind what it has been. I want to know what it is now."


Bean, n. and been. Past Part. of to be are homophones. As the example shows they are the same in sound but different in spelling. Here are some more examples of homophones:


night, n. — knight, n.; piece, n. — peace, n.; scent, n. — cent, n. — Bent, v. (Past Indef., Past Part, of to send); rite, n. — to write, v. — right, adj.; sea, n. — to see, v. — С [sl:] (the name of a letter).


The third type of homonyms is called homographs. These are words which are the same in spelling but different in sound.



Sources of Homonyms


One source of homonyms has already been mentioned: phonetic changes which words undergo in the course of their historical development. As a result of such changes, two or more words which were formerly 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. О. Е. niht). A more complicated change of form brought together another pair of homonyms: to knead (O. E. cnedan) 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 sx, 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 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 O. F. pais, and the second from O. F. (< Gaulish) pettia. Bank, n. ("shore") is a native word, and bank, n. ("a financial institution") is an Italian borrowing. Fair, adj. (as in a fair deal, it's not fair) is native, and fair, a. ("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. [12]

Shortening is a further type of word-building which increases the number of homonyms. E. g. fan, n. in the sense of "an 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 R. репс) 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 Women's 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" (R. крапивник).

Words made by sound-imitation can also form pairs of homonyms with other words: e. g. bang, n. ("a loud, sudden, explosive noise") — bang, n. ("a fringe of hair combed over the forehead"). Also: mew, n. ("the sound a 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 in 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 split polysemy.

From what has been said in the previous chapters about polysemantic words, it should have 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 is determined by one of the meanings (e. g. the meaning "flame" in the noun fire — see Ch. 7, p. 133). If this meaning happens to disappear from the word's semantic structure, associations between the rest of the meanings may be severed, the semantic structure loses its unity and falls 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 "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 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 was just that meaning which served as a link to hold together the rest of the constituent parts of the word's semantic structure. With its diminished role as an element of communication, its role in the semantic structure was also weakened. The speakers almost forgot that board had ever been associated with any item of furniture, nor could they associate the concepts of meals or of a responsible committee with a long thin piece of timber (which is the oldest meaning of board). Consequently, the semantic structure of board was split into three units. The following scheme illustrates the process:


Board, n. (development of meanings)









Board I, II, III, n. (split polysemy)



A somewhat different case of split polysemy may be illustrated by the three following homonyms:


spring, n. — the act of springing, a leap spring, n. — a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth (R. родник, источник)

spring, n. — a season of the year.


Historically all three nouns originate from the same verb with the meaning of "to jump, to leap" (O. E. springan), so that the meaning of the first homonym is the oldest. The meanings of the second and third homonyms were originally based on metaphor. At the head of a stream the water sometimes leaps up out of the earth, so that metaphorically such a place could well be described as a leap. On the other hand, the season of the year following winter could be poetically defined as a leap from the darkness and cold into sunlight and life. Such metaphors are typical enough of Old English and Middle English semantic transferences but not so characteristic of modern mental and linguistic processes. The poetic associations that lay in the basis of the semantic shifts described above have long since been forgotten, and an attempt to re-establish the lost links may well seem far-fetched. It is just the near-impossibility of establishing such links that seems to support the claim for homonymy and not for polysemy with these three words.

It should be stressed, however, that split polysemy as a source of homonyms is not accepted by some scholars. It is really difficult sometimes to decide whether a certain word has or has not been subjected to the split of the semantic structure and whether we are dealing 5 with different meanings of the same word or with homonyms, for the criteria are subjective and imprecise. The imprecision is recorded in the data of different dictionaries which often contradict each other on this very issue, so that board is represented as two homonyms in Professor V. K. Muller's dictionary [41], as three homonyms in Professor V. D. Arakin's [36] and as one and the same word in Hornby's dictionary [45].

Spring also receives different treatment. V. K. Muller's and Hornby's dictionaries acknowledge but two homonyms: I. a season of the year, II. a) the act of springing, a leap, b) a place where a stream of water comes up out of the earth; and some other meanings, whereas V. D. Arakin's dictionary presents the three homonyms as given above.


Classification of Homonyms


The subdivision of homonyms into homonyms proper, homophones and homographs is certainly not precise enough and does not reflect certain important features of these words, and, most important of all, their status as parts of speech. The examples given in the beginning of this chapter show that homonyms may belong both to the same and to different categories of parts of speech. Obviously, a classification of homonyms should reflect this distinctive feature. Also, the paradigm of each word should be considered, because it has been observed that the paradigms of some homonyms coincide completely, and of others only partially.

Accordingly, Professor A. I. Smirnitsky classified homonyms into two large classes: I. full homonyms, II. partial homonyms [15].

Full lexical homonyms are words which represent the same category of parts of speech and have the same paradigm.



Partial homonyms are subdivided into three subgroups:

A. Simple lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words which belong to the same category of parts of speech. Their paradigms have one identical form, but it is never the same form, as will be seen from the examples.



B. Complex lexico-grammatical partial homonyms are words of different categories of parts of speech which have one identical form in their paradigms.


E. g.   rose, n.

rose, v. (Past Indef. of to rise}


maid, n.

made, v. (Past Indef., Past Part. of to make}


left, adj.

left, v. (Past Indef., Past Part. of to leave)


bean, n.

been, v. (Past Part. of to be)


one, num.

won, v. (Past Indef., Past Part. of to win)


C. Partial lexical homonyms are words of the same category of parts of speech which are identical only in their corresponding forms.


E. g.   to lie (lay, lain), v.

to lie (lied, lied), v.


to hang {hung, hung}, v.

to hang (hanged, hanged), v.


to can canned, canned)

(I) can (could)




I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. Which words do we call homonyms?

2. Why can't homonyms be regarded as expressive means of the language?

3. What is the traditional classification of homonyms? Illustrate your answer with examples.

4. What are the distinctive features of the classification of homonyms suggested by Professor A. I. Smirnitsky?

 5. What are the main sources of homonyms? Illustrate your answer with examples.

6. In what respect does split polysemy stand apart from other sources of homonyms?

7. Prove that the language units board ("a long and thin piece of timber") and board ("daily meals") are two different words (homonyms) and not two different meanings of one and the same word. Write down some other similar examples.

8. What is the essential difference between homonymy and polysemy? What do they have in common? Illustrate your answer with examples.


II. Find the homonyms in the following extracts. Classify them into homonyms proper, homographs and homophones.


1. "Mine is a long and a sad tale!" said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing. "It is a long tail, certainly," said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail; "but why do you call it sad?" 2. a) My seat was in the middle of a row. b) "I say, you haven't had a row with Corky, have you?" 3. a) Our Institute football team got a challenge to a match from the University team and we accepted it. b) Somebody struck a match so that we could see each other. 4. a) It was nearly December but the California sun made a summer morning of the season, b) On the way home Crane no longer drove like a nervous old maid. 5. a) She loved to dance and had every right to expect the boy she was seeing almost every night in the week to take her dancing at least once on the weekend, b) "That's right," she said. 6. a) Do you always forget to wind up your watch? b) Crane had an old Ford without a top and it rattled so much and the wind made so much noise. 7. a) In Brittany there was once a knight called Eliduc. b) She looked up through the window at the night. 8. a) He had a funny round face. b) — How does your house face? — It faces the South. 9. a) So he didn't shake his hand because he didn't shake cowards’ hands, see, and somebody else was elected captain.. b) Mel's plane had been shot down into the sea. 10. a) He was a lean, wiry Yankee who knew which side his experimental bread was buttered on. b) He had a wife of excellent and influential family, as finely bred as she was faithful to him. 11. a) He was growing progressively deafer in the left ear. b) I saw that I was looking down into another cove similar to the one I had left. 12. a) Iron and lead are base metals. b) V/here does the road lead? 13. Kikanius invited him and a couple of the other boys to join him for a drink, and while Hugo didn't drink, he went along for the company.


III. On what linguistic phenomenon is the joke in the following extracts based? What causes the misunderstanding?


1. "Are your father and mother in?" asked the visitor of the small boy who opened the door.

"They was in," said the child, "but they is out." "They was in. They is out. Where's your grammar?" "She's gone upstairs," said the boy, "for a nap."


2. "Yes, Miss Janes, it's true my husband has left his job. He thought it was better for him to enlist rather than to be called up. Anyway, he has burned his bridges behind him."

"Oh, well, I shouldn't worry about that. They'll provide him with a uniform in the Army," commented the neighbour.


3. "I got sick last night eating eggs."

"Too bad."

"No, only one."


4. Husband and wife were enjoying a quiet evening by their fireside, he deep in a book and she in a crossword puzzle. Suddenly she questioned him:'

"Darling, what is a female sheep?"

"Ewe [ju:]>" he replied. His further explanation hardly soothed her.


5. "I spent last summer in a very pretty city in Switzerland."


"No, I almost froze."


6. Officer (to driver in parked car): Don't you see that sign "Fine for parking"?

Driver: Yes, officer, I see and agree with it.


IV. a. Find the homonyms proper for the following words; give their Russian equivalents.


1. bared — a company of musicians. 2. seal — a warm-blooded, fish-eating sea-animal, found chiefly in cold regions. 3. ear — the grain-bearing spike of a cereal plant, as in corn. 4. cut — the result of cutting. 5. to bore — to make a long round hole, esp. with a pointed tool that is turned round. 6. corn — a hard, horny thickening of the skin, esp. on the foot. 7. fall — the act of falling, dropping or coming down. 8. to hail — to greet, salute, shout an expression of welcome. 9. ray — any of several cartilaginous fishes, as the stingray, skate, etc. 10. draw — something that attracts attention.


b. Find the homophones to the following words, translate them into Russian or explain their meanings in English.


Heir, dye, cent, tale, sea, week, peace, sun, meat, steel, knight, sum, coarse, write, sight, hare.


c. Find the homographs to the following words and transcribe both.


1. To bow — to bend the head or body. 2. wind — air in motion. 3. to tear— to pull apart by force. 4. to desert -— to go away from a person or place. 5. row — a number of persons or things in a line.


V. a. Classify the following italicized homonyms. Use Professor A. I. Smirnitsky's classification system.


1. a) He should give the ball in your honour as the bride, b) The boy was playing with a ball. 2. a) He wished he could explain about his left ear, b) He left the sentence unfinished. 3. a) I wish you could stop lying. b) The yellow mouse was still dead, lying as it had fallen in the crystal clear liquid. 4. a) This time, he turned on the light, b) He wore $300 suits with light ties and he was a man you would instinctively trust anywhere.

5. a) When he's at the door of her room, he sends the page ahead, b) Open your books at page 20.

6. a) Crockett's voice rose for the first time. b) I'll send you roses, one rose for each year of your life. 7. a) He was bound to keep the peace for six months, b) You should bound your desires by reason. 8. a) The pain was almost more than he could bear. b) Catch the bear before you sell his skin. 9. a) To can means to put up in airtight tins or jars for preservation, b) A man can die but once.


b. Explain the homonyms which form the basis for the following jokes. Classify the types as in part a.


1. An observing man claims to have discovered the colour of the wind. He says he went out and found it blew.

2. Child: Mummy, what makes the Tower of Pisa lean?

Fat mother: I have no idea, dear, or I'd take some myself.


3. Advertisement: "Lion tamer wants tamer lion."


4. F a t h e r; Didn't I tell you not to pick any flowers without leave?

Child: Yes, daddy, but all these roses had leaves.


5. Diner: Waiter, the soup is spoiled.

Waiter: Who told you that?

Diner: A little swallow.


6. The difference between a cat and a comma is that a cat has its claws at the end of its paws, and a comma has its pause at the end of a clause.


7. A canner exceedingly canny

              One morning remarked to his grannie:

    "A canner can can anything that he can,

     But a canner can't can a can, can'e?"


VI. Provide homonyms for the italicized words in the following jokes and extracts and classify them according to Professor A. I. Smirnitsky's classification system.


1.Teacher: Here is a map. Who can show us America?

Nick goes to the map and finds America on it.

Teacher: Now, tell me, boys, who found America?

Boys: Nick.


2. F a t h e r: I promised to buy you a car if you passed your examination, and you have failed. What were you doing last term?

Sоn: I was learning to drive a car.


3. "What time do you get up in summer?"

"As soon as the first ray of the sun comes into my window."

"Isn't that rather early?"

"No, my room faces west."


4. "Here, waiter, it seems to me that this fish is not so fresh as the fish you served us last Sunday." "Pardon, sir, it is the very same fish."


5. Old Gentleman: Is it a board school you go to, my dear?

Child: No, sir. I believe it be a brick one!


6. Stanton: I think telling the truth is about as healthy as skidding round a corner at sixty.

Freda: And life's got a lot of dangerous corners — hasn't it, Charles?

Stanton: It can have — if you don't choose your route well. To lie or not to lie — what do you think, Olwen?

(From Dangerous Corner by J. B. Priestley)

VII. Explain how the following italicized words became homonyms.


1. a) Eliduc's overlord was the king of Brittany, who was very fond of the knight, b) "I haven't slept a wink all night, my eyes just wouldn't shut." 2. a) The tiger did not spring, and so I am still alive, b) It was in a saloon in Savannah, on a hot night in spring. 3. a) She left her fan at home. b) John is a football fan. 4. a) "My lady, ... send him a belt or a ribbon — or a ring. So see if it pleases him." b) Eliduc rode to the sea. 5. a) The Thames in London is now only beautiful from certain viewpoints — from Waterloo Bridge at dawn and at night from Cardinal's Wharf on the South Bank. b) Perhaps the most wide-spread pleasure is the spectacle of the City itself, its people, the bank messengers in their pink frock coats and top hats. 6. a) The young page gave her good advice: no need to give up hope so soon. b) The verb to knead means to mix and make into a mass, with the hands or by machinery, especially, mix flour and water into dough for making bread. 7. a.) Ads in America are ubiquitous. They fill the newspapers and cover the walls, they are on menu cards and in your daily post. b) "Is that enough?" asked Fortune. "Just a few more, add a few more," said the man. 8. a) The teacher told her pupils to write a composition about the last football match, b) Give me a match, please. 9. a) I can answer that question, b) He had no answer. 10. a) Does he really love me? b) Never trust a great man's love. 11. a) Board and lodging, £ 2 a week. b) The proficiency of students is tested by the Examining Board. 12. a) A rite is a form in which a ceremony or observance is carried out. b) I would write letters to people. c) He put the belt on himself, and was rather careful to get it right.


VIII. Do the following italicized words represent homonyms or polysemantic words? Explain reasons for your answers.


1. 26 letters of the ABC; to receive letters regularly. 2. no mean scholar; to mean something. 3. to propose a toast; an underdone toast. 4. a hand of the clock; to hold a pen in one's hand. 5. to be six foot long; at the foot of the mountain. 6. the capital of a country; to have a big capital (money). 7. to date back to year 1870; to have a date with somebody. 8. to be engaged to Mr. N; to be engaged in conversation. 9. to make a fire; to sit at the /ire(place). 10. to peel the bark off the branch; to bark loudly at the stranger. 11. A waiter is a person who, instead of waiting on you at once, makes you wait for him, so that you become a waiter too.


IX. To revise what you have learned from the preceding chapters, say everything you can about the italicized words in one of the following aspects:


1. a) etymology, b) word-building, c) homonymy.


A boy came home with torn clothes, his hair full of dust and his face bearing marks of a severe conflict.

"Oh, Willie," said his mother. "You disobeyed me again. You must not play with that Smith boy. He is a bad boy".

"Ma," said Willie, washing the blood from his nose, "do I look as if I had been playing with anybody?"


2. a) etymology, b) word-building, c) stylistic characteristics


"But I love the Italians," continued Mrs. Blair. "They are so obliging — though even that has its embarrassing side. You ask them the way somewhere, and instead of saying "first to the right, second to the left" or something that one could follow, they pour out a flood of well-meaning directions, and when you look bewildered they take you kindly by the arm and walk all the way there with you."

(From The Man in the Brown Suit by A. Christie)


3. a) stylistic characteristics, b) semantics, e) word-building.


Once in the driving seat, with reins handed to him, and blinking over his pale old cheeks in the full sunlight, he took a slow look round. Adolf was already up behind; the cockaded groom at the horses' head stood ready to go; everything was prepared for the signals, and Swithin gave it. The equipage dashed forward, and before you could say Jack Robinson, with a rattle and flourish drew up at Soames' door.

(From The Forsyte Saga. by J. Galsworthy)


4. a) homonymy, b) word-building.


Soames arrived on the stroke of time, and took his seat alongside the Board, who, in a row, each Director behind his own inkpot, faced their Shareholders.

In the centre of this row old Jolyon, conspicuous in his black, tightly-buttoned frock-coat and his white moustaches, was leaning back with finger-tips crossed on a copy of the Directors' report and accounts.



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