Homophones are evil little words seemingly created just to cause grief for anyone trying to learn a language.
A homophone is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning, and may also differ in spelling. The classic example in English is ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. The confusion of these homophones has been a pitfall for many native English speakers as well as those trying to learn the language.
Homophones include those words that are simply recycled with the same spelling and pronunciation but multiple meanings.
Examples include ‘bank’, ‘mouse’ and ‘date’. All these have different meanings and span both verbs and nouns. You can date a document and eat a date as well. A mouse can nibble your computer wires and a different type of mouse can be used to navigate the internet. But these homophones don’t always behave the same way. The Oxford Dictionary suggests that ‘mouses’ is a correct plural form for a computer connected device but it would be incorrect to use this to refer to a group of small rodents: instead these are called mice.
But homophones such as the triptych of there/their/they’re are contained within one language. A further complication is afforded by homophones that work across multiple languages. These tend to be known as ‘false friends’ as they can deceive unwary polyglots, or accidentally alarm or entertain with their second meaning.
An amusing one emerged recently when the German press acknowledged the British Queen’s 90th birthday with the headline ‘Die Queen’. English speaking visitors to Mandarin speaking China are often alarmed to hear the taboo sound of “nigga” (那个) being repeatedly used in conversation. This is actually just a filler word in Mandarin, used in place of words such as ‘um’ or ‘uh’.
In some cases, false friends can have polar opposite meanings in their respective languages.
‘Beter’ is Turkish for ‘worse’ and 山 (yama) means ‘mountain’ in Japanese but яма (yama) means ‘pit’ or ‘hole’ in Russian.
Perhaps it’s inevitable for languages that have no obvious connections to one another to provide the most outrageous homophones. Language isolates (those oddball languages that stand alone and share no obvious roots with any other language) have no reason not to contain homophones.
In Basque, “hotz” means cold – and why shouldn’t it? Basque and English share no common roots that might have prevented this homophone occurring. But it perhaps seems stranger when languages that have closer ties to feature obvious false friends. Czech and Polish are branches on the same tree of Slavic European languages and theoretically share similar roots. Yet some strongly polar homophones come out of this pair of languages.
In Czech, ‘čerstvý’ means fresh but in Polish, ‘czerstwy’ means stale. In Czech, ‘láska’ is ‘love’ and ‘milost’ is ‘mercy’. In Polish however, ‘łaska’ is ‘mercy’ and ‘miłość’ is ‘love’.
There are other false friends besides homophones that can trap the unwary linguist. Dutch and English share an identical expression that has the precise opposite meaning. The idiom ‘high and dry’ in English and its Dutch counterpart ‘hoog en droog’ have the same literal meaning in translation but really mean the opposite as idioms. To be high and dry, for a seafaring nation above sea level like the UK, means to be in trouble with no way out – like a ship beached on a sandbank. For the low lying Dutch nation keen to avoid floods, to be high and dry is a good thing!
Some false friends betray the shared roots of certain languages. Dutch and Afrikaans have a deep and recent relationship, with Afrikaans often referred to as a ‘daughter’ language of Dutch (it also shares elements of other languages including Malay and the Bantu languages).
Some words in Afrikaans are very similar or the same to their Dutch parent language but the meaning has traveled somewhat since colonial days. ‘Eventueel’ means ‘possibly’ in Dutch, but thanks probably to the influence of English it now means ‘eventual’ in Modern Afrikaans. This tells you rather a lot about the history of the south part of Africa over the last few hundred years. The meaning of other words has narrowed rather than changed. For instance, ‘bees’ means ‘animal’ in Dutch, but in Afrikaans the word refers specifically to an ox or cow.
Perhaps even rarer than false friends are language’s true friends. In both Vietnamese (‘tiếng/tiɜŋ) and Irish (‘teanga/ˈtʲaŋə’) the word for ‘language’ sounds surprisingly similar. That’s a particularly big coincidence as these languages are far removed from one another in terms of their ancient origins and also modern existences. It’s less surprising that English and German – two languages with shared roots – have a number of ‘true friends’. These include words such as ‘blouse’ (GB) and ‘bluse’ (DE) and ‘brown’ (‘braun’).
Why homophones exist
It’s easier to understand why cross-language homophones exist than it is to see why languages have their own internal homophones. After all, the human voice box is only capable of a limited range of noises. For this reason it’s perhaps inevitable that some homophones will emerge.
The simpler homophones – short words that come easily to the tongue – are inevitably common across multiple languages.
A simple to pronounce word like ‘tak’ features in multiple languages and has distinct meanings in languages including Czech, Danish, Dutch, Icelandic, Malay, Turkish, Latvian, Polish and Swedish. In many cases these cross-language coincidences reveal nothing more than the limited range of sounds that are available within the human vocabulary.
Whilst false friends can be pitfalls for language learners, sometimes the familiarity of a word, even if it has a different meaning, can assist with remembering it. False friends can in some cases help with learning of vocabulary, simply because the homophone quality makes the word stand out. In this sense, cross-language homophones are a language learner’s friend. It’s the internal homophones – the unholy trinity of there/their/there – that really cause problems for those learning a language.