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Pi Day: or the world of homonyms, homographs, and homophones

14 March is Pi Day, a day, presumably, when all things 3.14159 are celebrated. Unless I have made a typo in the first sentence, it should be obvious that you should not be expecting lots of “Who ate all the pies” chants as we honour the humble pastry case with filling. Similarly, the numismatists among you should not be rubbing your hands in anticipation at the idea of paying tribute to a former monetary unit of India and Pakistan. Which is a roundabout way of saying that while you might wonder:  1. Why there is a specially designated day for this and 2. Why it should be this particular day*, seeing it written down in black and white should cause no confusion. Consider, however, if you heard this sentence read aloud – then it might not be so simple.

Welcome to the world of homonymy – a place where words have the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings and origins.

Lucky fish

Strictly speaking, not all of the examples above are homonyms of each other. Pi the number is spelled differently from the foodstuff and currency (although those two are indeed homonyms). Yet it can be used as something of an umbrella term to gather together this kind of phenomenon. With true homonyms (in which spelling and pronunciation are exactly the same), context is your only friend, as the word in isolation won’t give you any clues to meaning, and neither will saying the word out loud. Consider the following:

It’s a fluke.

If someone said this to you, unless you knew that he or she enjoyed angling, you would probably assume that an instance of chance or luck was being discussed. But you couldn’t be sure. And if you saw it written down with no further clues, you’d have nothing to help you decide. With some surrounding context, you’d be much better placed.

It’s a fluke. I’ve played badly all night, so I don’t know how I managed to win that last game.

It’s a fluke. I remember catching one on our last fishing trip.

Who is headlining the Reading Festival?

Then we have homographs – words which are written in the same way, but usually pronounced differently. Confusion is unlikely to occur in spoken language (unless someone is in doubt when reading something aloud), but could happen in written communication. Again, context is a big help. If you read about the Reading Festival in a music magazine, you would probably guess that the festival in question was the rock festival held in Berkshire every August (in this case pronounced as ‘redding’). If it appeared in a literary magazine, then you would not be blamed for expecting a jamboree of authors discussing their work. If you were handed a written instruction to take a bow, you would most likely bend the top part of your body and lap up the (imaginary) applause. Unless of course you were taking part in an archery class, when you would probably take aim and fire. Again, the spoken word would not leave you in much doubt.

I know you’ve got soul

Of course, things can work the other way. Like with Pi Day, words can sound the same but be written quite differently. Reading them would present no problems of ambiguity, but hearing them spoken just might. The meaning of “I know you’ve got soul” is obvious when you see it, but consider that sentence spoken in a fish restaurant. You would probably expect an entirely different kind of sole. Words which are pronounced in the same way but spelled differently and with different meanings are called homophones, and can quite often give rise to puns. So you get hairdressers with shops called Curl Up And Dye and a band called Girls Aloud to name but two.

When homonymy gets complicated

As a parting shot, I leave you with a much loved example (at least as far as I am concerned) which shows that sometimes accent can play as big a part as spelling. It might be stretching the limits of homonymy somewhat and it definitely requires a certain amount of anthropomorphism, but try this sentence out loud in a British English accent:

His poor swollen paw meant he couldn’t pour the milk.


*For anyone wondering, this is a reference to how 14 March would be written according to the American convention: 3.14.

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