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Homophones Part I: Heterographs

Don't be afraid of the difficult-looking words above! It's really quite simple: Homophones are all words that sound the same, but have different meanings. Heterographs are simply homophones that have different spellings. They can be quite confusing in spoken language, because the only way to tell homophones and heterographs apart is by the context in which they are used. The word "homophone" literally means "sounds the same," whereas the word heterograph means "written differently."


English has a large number of heterographs, and this probably has a lot to do with the history of the language. English is a Germanic language, meaning that it has its basic roots in the languages that were spoken in Scandinavia more than a thousand years ago. These peoples, called the Saxons, occupied much of Britain for centuries. But in the 1100s, the Normans, from what is now in France, invaded much of Britain and brought with them influences from the French language. This is also why English spelling can seem so difficult. The mix of languages in its development made for a mix of influences that also changed over time. For example, the word "rough" is pronounced RUFF, but the word "through," with the same -ough letter combination, is pronounced THROO. Let's take a look today at some heterographs in English.


Oh no. It's going to rain all week.

Caption 20, Sigrid explains - The Weather

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There have been ravens here since the reign of Charles the Second.

Caption 9, The London Story - Tower of London

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The words "rain" and "reign" sound the same. But if somebody is talking about weather, you'll know they are probably talking about rain. On the other hand, if the talk is about a king or a queen, they are likely discussing reigns.


I can hear about what they've been up to since they've been here.

Caption 48, The Apartment - Maggie's Visit

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In the example above, the heterographs "hear" and "here" both appear in the same sentence. Again, in most cases you can tell the difference in their meanings by the contexts in which the words are spoken.


OK, sure, it looks complicated, but bear with us.

Caption 3, Brexit - What Happens When the UK Leaves the EU?

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The koala bear is not a bear. It's a marsupial.

Caption 38, English with Lauren - Contradictions

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And our nightgowns are trailing and our feet are bare.

Caption 10, Katie Melua - Moonshine

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In the first example above, we see the verb "to bear," which figuratively means "to have patience" or literally "to carry" something. The noun "bear," which refers to a large mammal, is a homophone of the verb "to bear." They are spelled the same but mean different things. The last example, "bare," sounds the same as the verb "to bear" and the noun "bear," but is spelled differently. "Bare" can mean "uncovered," as in "bare feet," or "empty," as in "a bare cupboard." So a silly sentence like "Bear with the bare bear" means "Have patience with the uncovered large animal."


Pollination happens when insects, such as bees, or wind, or other forces of nature transport pollen from one flower to another.

Captions 31-32, Luana explains - Plants

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Mix the baking powder well into the flour before adding it to the other ingredients.

Caption 14, English Afternoon Tea - Victoria Sponge - The Royal Connection

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Again, the context in which the word is spoken will help you to know if the speaker is talking about flowers or an ingredient in a recipe!


Further Learning
Take a look at this list of 335 English heterographs and make yourself familiar with some of the words that are new to you. Then choose a pair of words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently, and find some videos on Yabla English that use the words. Listen to the videos with the captions turned off so you can practice listening to the two words in the context of the videos. In most cases, you will probably know which word is meant! You can also watch the 10-Part Yabla series "The History of the English Language."