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Venn diagram showing the relationships between homographs (yellow) and related linguistic concepts.

A homograph (from the Greek: ὁμός, homós, "same" and γράφω, gráphō, "write") is a word that shares the same written form as another word but has a different meaning.[citation needed] However, some dictionaries insist that the words must also sound differently,[1] while the Oxford English Dictionary says that the words should also be of "different origin".[2] In this vein, The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography lists various types of homographs, including those in which the words are discriminated by being in a different word class, such as hit, the verb to strike, and hit the noun a blow.[3]

If, when spoken, the meanings may be distinguished by different pronunciations, the words are also heteronyms. Words with the same writing and pronunciation (i.e. are both homographs and homophones) are considered homonyms. However, in a looser sense the term "homonym" may be applied to words with the same writing or pronunciation. Homograph disambiguation is critically important in speech synthesis, natural language processing and other fields. Identically-written different senses of what is judged to be fundamentally the same word are called polysemes; for example, wood (substance) and wood (area covered with trees).

In English


  • bear (verb) – to support or carry
bear (noun) – the animal

The words are identical in spelling and pronunciation (i.e. they are also homophones), but differ in meaning and grammatical function.

  • sow (verb) – to plant seed
sow (noun) – female pig

The two words are spelt identically but pronounced differently. Here confusion is not possible in spoken language but could occur in written language.

More examples

Word Example of first meaning Example of second meaning
lead Gold is heavier than lead. The mother duck will lead her ducklings around.
close "Will you please close that door!" The tiger was now so close that I could smell it...
wind The wind howled through the woodlands. Wind your watch.
minute I will be there in a minute. That is a very minute amount.

In Chinese

Many Chinese varieties have homographs, called 多音字 (pinyin: duōyīnzì) or 重形字 (pinyin: chóngxíngzì), 破音字 (pinyin: pòyīnzì).

Old Chinese

Modern study of Old Chinese has found patterns that suggest a system of affixes.[4] One pattern is the addition of the prefix /*ɦ/, which turns transitive verbs into intransitive or passives in some cases:[5]

Word Pronunciationa Meaninga Pronunciationb Meaningb
*kens see *ɦkens appear
*prats defeat *ɦprats be defeated
All data from Baxter, 1992.[5]

Another pattern is the use of a /*s/ suffix, which seems to create nouns from verbs or verbs from nouns:[5]

Word Pronunciationa Meaninga Pronunciationb Meaningb
*dron transmit *drons (n.) record
*maj grind *majs grindstone
*sɨk (v.) block *sɨks border, frontier
*ʔjɨj clothing *ʔjɨjs wear, clothe
*wjaŋ king *wjaŋs be king
All data from Baxter, 1992.[5]

Middle Chinese

Many homographs in Old Chinese also exist in Middle Chinese. Examples of homographs in Middle Chinese are:

Word Pronunciationa Meaninga Pronunciationb Meaningb
/jĭe/ easy /jĭɛk/ (v.) change
/bĭɛt/ (v.) part /pĭɛt/ differentiate, other
/ʑĭaŋ/ rise, give /ʑĭaŋ/ above, top, emperor
/dʲʱĭaŋ/ long /tʲĭaŋ/ lengthen, elder
Reconstructed phonology from Wang Li on the tables in the article Middle Chinese. Tone names in terms of level (平), rising (上), departing (去), and entering (入) are given. All meanings and their respective pronunciations from Wang et al., 2000.[6]

Modern Chinese

Many homographs in Old Chinese and Middle Chinese also exist in modern Chinese varieties. Homographs which did not exist in Old Chinese or Middle Chinese often come into existence due to differences between literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters. Other homographs may have been created due to merging two different characters into the same glyph during script reform (See Simplified Chinese characters and Shinjitai).

Some examples of homographs in Cantonese from Middle Chinese are:

Word Pronunciationa Meaninga Pronunciationb Meaningb
[jiː˨] easy [jɪk˨] (v.) change
[ɕœːŋ˩˧] rise, give [ɕœːŋ˨] above, top, emperor
[tɕʰœːŋ˨˩] long [tɕœːŋ˧˥] lengthen, elder

See also


  1. Homophones and Homographs: An American Dictionary, 4th ed., McFarland, 2006, p. 3.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary: homograph.
  3. Atkins, BTS.; Rundell, M., The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography, OUP Oxford, 2008, pp. 192 - 193.
  4. Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-521-22809-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology (Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs). Berlin and New York: de Gruyter Mouton. pp. 218–220. ISBN 978-3-11-012324-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Wang Li et al. (2000). 王力古漢語字典. Beijing: 中華書局. ISBN 7-101-01219-1.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>