General Question

DominicX's avatar

How common is heteronymity in non-English languages?

Asked by DominicX (28762points) November 10th, 2011

Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently and have different meanings.

This phenomenon is decently common in English, such as “read” vs. “read” (one being present tense, the other being past), or “bow” (part of a ship) and “bow” (a type of knot), etc.

But to what extent does this occur in other languages? I don’t speak any other languages fluently and the languages I do have adequate knowledge of (such as Latin) exhibit it to a limited extent (liber vs. li:ber, for example, one means “free”, one means “book”—the latter has a long “i”, and that’s hardly a difference).

Those of you who speak other languages or have knowledge of other languages: does this occur where two words are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings? What are some examples?

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17 Answers

mangeons's avatar

I took four years of French in school, and while I’m not really fluent, I haven’t ever come across any that I can recall. That’s not to say there aren’t any, but I’d suspect that they aren’t too common.

poisonedantidote's avatar

In Spanish:

Banco can mean “bench” or “bank”.
Vaca can mean “cow” or “a roof rack for a car”.
Paso can mean “passed” or “happened/came to be” or “to take a step.”

In Mallorquin:

Deu means “god” or “owes” or “ten” the pronounciation is hardly even different.
Set means “thirsty” and “seven”.
Buit mean “eight” or “empty”.

In Mandarin Chinese:

Wo can be “I” or “nest” (no idea outside of romanized spelling)

In Catalan:

Dit can mean “said” or “finger”.

Haleth's avatar

Mandarin Chinese has different tones and many short syllables, so the pitch of your voice can change the meaning of the word. My Chinese teacher taught us this little phrase, “Ma ma ma ma,” which means, “mother hits the horse.” The words, “mother,” “hit” and “horse” are all pronounced with different tones of “ma.” Four and death are both pronounced as “si” but with different tones, so four is considered an unlucky number. I’ve heard that the floors in hospitals and some other places are numbered 1–2-3–5.

The different tones and context make the meaning clear, but there are many words with similar sounds.

DominicX's avatar

@poisonedantidote Hey, thanks for answering. But those sound like homonyms, words that are spelled the same and pronounced the same, but have different meanings, like English “mean” (average) and “mean” (nasty). Are they pronounced differently?

@Haleth Yeah, Chinese is a difficult one because it’s hard to describe Chinese as really having “spelling” in the sense that we think of it.

thorninmud's avatar

They’re rare in French, but here are a couple:

“Fils” can mean “threads”, in which case it’s pronounced “feel”, or it can mean “son”, in which case it’s pronounced “feece”

“Couvent” can mean “to incubate” (in the third person plural), which is pronounced “coov”, or it can mean “convent”, which is pronounced “coovahn” (with a nasalized “n”).

Haleth's avatar

@DominicX Well, there is actually a romanization system for Chinese which is very straightforward, and that’s the first thing you learn. Most of the sounds in Chinese are simple and straightforward and follow logical rules, unlike in English. Chinese sounds as represented in our alphabet always sound the same. There is always one syllable to a character, each with its own meaning, so learning words is pretty easy, too.

People think characters are the hardest part, but even Chinese characters follow logical patterns. The simplest ones are ideograms, visual symbols. So the character for tree looks kind of like a tree. You can put these together to make more complicated ideas, so for example a woman under a roof means ‘peace’ or a moon and sun together mean ‘bright.’ Then again, I know Chinese at like a first grade level, so I’m probably not explaining it well. :p

DominicX's avatar

@thorninmud Thanks, those are perfect examples :) I had a feeling French had some. I know that in French the vowel-sound expressed by “ai” can be pronounced differently depending on the word, correct?

@Haleth Believe me, I took Japanese last year and Japanese is much worse. Some characters were pronounced as two or three syllables and could be pronounced up to eight different ways depending on what word they were in. And sometimes two characters are pronounced together as one syllable!

thorninmud's avatar

@DominicX Yes, the ai in “faire” is subtly different from the ai in “mais”, for example.

KoleraHeliko's avatar

In Esperanto there are a few cases where you can mould together a bunch of affixes to make other, already existing, longer words. It would be pronounced exactly the same, but have a different meaning. The only one I can think of right now is ‘eraro’, which means error. But if you use the affixes ‘er’ which is a smaller piece of a whole, and ‘ar’ which is a collection of something, then you have ‘eraro’ (’-o’ indicates a noun, by the way), which I suppose is a collection of smaller parts of a whole of something. Granted, I suspect there’s a better way of saying that with affixes. You could just say ‘aro da eroj’ or something. Not really an issue when speaking, just a trap for young players when reading the language.

Phew. That was weird to think about.

vine's avatar

Although I’m unable to comment on frequency, heteronymity can occur in Japanese. Some examples:

The word 風車 can be pronounced as fūsha or as kazaguruma. The first almost always means “windmill” and the latter is often “pinwheel.” The latter can also refer to Clematis patens, a vine whose flowers resemble pinwheels.

A more extreme example is 無心, which has only one pronunciation (mushin) but several definitions: “innocence” (as a noun); “insentient” (as an adjective); “to pester someone for money” (as a suru verb); and, in a Buddhist context, “free from obstructive thoughts” (again as an adjective). Maybe this isn’t a heteronym, though, since there is only one pronunciation.

The word 半身 can read as hanmi or as hanshin. The former refers, in sumo, to a “defensive position with one leg bent in front and other extended behind.” The latter means simply “half the body” or “half length.”

And then the word 縁 is just annoyingly multifarious. Pronounced as e, eni, or enishi, it means “fate” or “destiny.” Pronounced as fuchi, it means “the surrounding edge of something.” Pronounced as en, it means “fate” or “destiny” yet again (how unnecessary!), but also carries a Buddhism-specific usage and may refer to a “narrow open-air veranda.” Pronounced as heri, it means “edge,” “tip,” or “margin.” Pronounced as yukari, it means “affinity” or “connection.” Pronounced as yosuka or yosuga, it means “something to rely on,” “aid,” “clue,” or “memento.”

There are probably many more. I’d bet single-character words (like 縁 above) are especially guilty of this (as 分 is, which I just realized). After doing some research it also seems there are lot of heteronyms with special Buddhist readings.

Of course, the concept of “spelling” is bit different (maybe nonexistent) in Japanese, being that it uses both a syllabary and Chinese characters. I think someone mentioned as much earlier…

Very fun question.

fizzbanger's avatar

In Russian, an emphasis on the wrong syllable can be disastrous. For example, pi-SAT = to write, PI-sat = to piss. There are lots of misleading cognates that sound like English words but mean something totally different. I can’t think of something like read/read off the top of my head right now, though…

zensky's avatar

Love them!

Excuse; Please excuse me while I think of an excuse.
Polish; Tell the Polish cleaners to polish the floor.
Minute; The button was so minute that it was a minute before I found it.
Wind; Hopefully the wind will be strong enough to wind the windmill.
Record; It’s the referee’s job to record the new world record.

They cannot exist in Hebrew because it is phonetic and has a system of dots and dashes and thingees to help you read the word.

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cazzie's avatar

It happens in Norwegian. You have to look at the context in which the word is used. It’s too early to think of any examples. Words like gjenta and jenta sound exactly the same, but gjenta means ‘repeat’, as in ‘Can you repeat that?’ and jenta means ‘the girl’.

Oh… they’re spelled the same, but sound different? Um…. The only examples I could think of are nouns that end in ‘et’ to make them definite, as in ‘The house’ is hjemmet, ‘house’ is simply ‘hjem’. The ‘et’ isn’t pronounced. Sometimes, there are definite nouns that have endings in ‘a’ or ‘en’ or ‘et’ and it makes them look like a verb. The ‘a’ can sound a lot like an ‘e’ and the ‘et’ isn’t pronounced when it is a noun, but it is pronounced when it is a verb. I’m sure there is a list of those somewhere….

cazzie's avatar

(Oh… and dialects mess this whole thing up… in the dialect where I live, they don’t finish their verbs.. they tend to use the simplified version of the verb, so instead of saying ‘We are walking to the store.’ it comes out ‘We walk to the store.’

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