Words which change their meaning depending on how you say them.
June 2, 2008 11:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for words which can have different meanings, depending on how they are pronounced.

I was talking with a german-speaking colleague recently about the word suspect, which can be a verb or a noun (or even an adjective) depending on how you say it (at least where I come from).

Rebel is another example.

What is this phenomenon called and do you know of any other examples?
posted by booksprite to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
They're called heteronyms. Here's a list.
posted by dersins at 11:21 PM on June 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: And another.
posted by dersins at 11:22 PM on June 2, 2008

Heteronyms are for the verb/nouns. Homonyms can be anything.
posted by phunniemee at 11:24 PM on June 2, 2008

Oh, but that's for a different spelling...might not be what you're looking for.
posted by phunniemee at 11:26 PM on June 2, 2008

Except that the whole point of homonyms is that they are pronounced the same, which is the exact opposite of what the question was asking about.
posted by dersins at 11:27 PM on June 2, 2008

I noticed right after I posted it. Homonyms are still totally cool, though! I have love for all the -nyms.
posted by phunniemee at 11:30 PM on June 2, 2008

Best answer: booksprite seems to be looking for words that change their emphasis (or possibly their entire pronunciation) when used as different parts of speech. So they would be heteronyms, as dersins said, but they're a special class of heteronyms, namely ones that are also heterosemes. I don't know if there's a special word for this. I would suggest calling them heterosemic heteronyms.
posted by ErWenn at 11:36 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:41 PM on June 2, 2008

"Lead". Pronounced "leed" it means a wire that connects to something electrically. Pronounced "ledd" it refers to a chemical element which is very dense. (Or to the graphite in the middle of a pencil.)
posted by Class Goat at 12:06 AM on June 3, 2008

Close is one of my favorites, because it's not just the same old initial-stressed-noun trick.

If you specifically want words with one spelling but different pronunciations for different parts of speech, it seems there are about 770 of them in the Moby public-domain pronouncing dictionary. It doesn't look like it would be too hard to write a scrap of code to pull them out—in fact, Sean Burke may have done most of that work for us (search also for his article about this code from The Perl Journal). And/or one could try to pull a similar list out of the CMU pronouncing dictionary.
posted by eritain at 12:25 AM on June 3, 2008

posted by juv3nal at 1:38 AM on June 3, 2008

yay dinosaur comix!

And here's the Wiki article the alt-text of the comic refers to.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:40 AM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Of the ones that came to mind the only one not on the list is "Reading" (Reading a book vs Reading, Berkshire).
posted by w0mbat at 2:52 AM on June 3, 2008

posted by jozxyqk at 3:26 AM on June 3, 2008

I like "abstract" because it can be a verb, noun, or adjective.
posted by that girl at 6:15 AM on June 3, 2008

posted by amtho at 6:33 AM on June 3, 2008

posted by Nattie at 7:26 AM on June 3, 2008

Herb (the name) and herb (the spice), for American ears, at least. I also think it is the only word that changes meaning when the first letter is capitalized (except, of course, at the beginning of a sentence).
posted by qwip at 7:36 AM on June 3, 2008

It's not -- see Polish/polish above.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:38 AM on June 3, 2008

err..., except for Polish/polish and any other words that are exceptions...
posted by qwip at 8:46 AM on June 3, 2008

Tangentially on topic.

I heard a wonderful BBC radio play once about teaching English as foreign language. The annoying native German speaker in the play was torturing the tutor by insisting English was logically confusing - and the German flourished as an example "swallow" - when it may be used as either a noun or verb.

Possibly, you had to be there to appreciate it: but I can still recall snorting with joy when the German character kept interrupting the lesson: "But "vot" if a swallow should swallow a swallow? Huh? You tell me how I must understand if I am told that a swallow should swallow a swallow!".

(Already regretting telling this!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:01 AM on June 3, 2008

Or that a buffalo should buffalo a buffalo, and should those buffalo be natives of Buffalo, New York then I pity that poor German.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
posted by electricinca at 9:52 AM on June 3, 2008

Desert (as in Sahara) and desert pronounced like dessert.
You can win a bet with this one, because almost everyone will tell you that the dessert pronunciation must have the double "s". Not the verb. Not when you desert the army.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:06 AM on June 3, 2008

So this poem isn't *quite* what you're looking for, but it gives you some good examples and dis-examples.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it's written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

And so on, for many more stanzas... Enjoy!
posted by GardenGal at 1:57 PM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Minute -- as in time, or size.
posted by lilac girl at 5:17 PM on June 3, 2008

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