Category: Linguistics


Posted February 7, 2012 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Linguistics / 2 Comments

Slightly off topic, but with the upcoming university studies, I may start talking about the beauty and complexity of the English language. I know most people know the basics but I’m writing this out of interest and as a refresher. We all have an idea what a homonym is, but do you know the difference between a homographs, homophones, heteronyms, polysemes and capitonyms? Well, there are only slight differences but I will try to explain them all now.

To begin with I just want to remind people what a Homonym is; a word that is spelt and pronounced the same but has different meanings. The word comes from the Greek word homonumos which means ‘having the same name’.

But that is the literal meaning; Homonym seems to also be an umbrella definition that includes other linguistic concepts that are related. Below are examples of them;

Homographs: these are normally words that are spelt the same regardless of their pronunciation.

Homophones: refer to words that share the same pronunciation regardless of their spelling.

Heteronyms: are subsets of homonyms; they are spelt the same but have a different pronunciation and often meaning (normally referred to as Heteronyms and Heterographs).

Polysemes: have different but related meaning; for example man (male) or man (the human species) or man (an adult male).

Capitonyms: are words have a different meaning when it capitalised; for example march (the rhythmical walk) and March (the third month of the year).

To make things easier here is a chart to help see the differences;

Term Meaning Spelling Pronunciation
Homonym Different Same Same
Homograph Different Same Same or different
Homophone Different Same or different Same
Heteronym Different Same Different
Heterograph Different Different Same
Polyseme Different but related Same Same or different
Capitonym Different when
Same except for
Same or different

While I knew the concepts of homonyms, I never realised there was so many different concepts that are related to it. Linguistics is normally divided into three different aspects of study; form, context and meaning. Even though homonyms are a very tiny fraction of the study of linguistics, I find it interesting that it seems to hit on all three parts of the science. I hope people have learned something new or at least found something interesting to think about.

Evolution of the English Language

Posted April 22, 2010 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Linguistics / 0 Comments

Recently I wrote an entry about pop culture destroying literature and in one comment it was mentioned the beautiful language the classics were written in. This got me thinking; why did the English language have to evolve?

I did some research on the topic, beginning with the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons’ language was already a blend of dialects from West Germanic tribes. Add some dialects from the Norse, Frisian and the Dutch and you start to see the English language form. Now skipping all the history lessons of basically everyone invading England and leaving their make on the English language, you begin to form what is now known as Old English.

This is where it begins to get tricky and hard to follow, so stick with me while I try to explain the old English to modern English transition. From what I can tell Old English pronounced P, b, t, d, m, n, l, and r as we do today but rarely use letters like k, q, v, x, and z, then you have non-modern letters like thorn (þ) and eth (ð).

The period between 1150 and 1475, there were three major dialects of Middle English; Northern (Northumberland), Midlands (Mercia) and Southern (Wessex). From what I can work out, Modern English was like a major merger between the three dialects.

This began the basics of what we call the Modern English language. One of the biggest reasons behind the evolution of language is pronunciation. Words were pronounced vastly different in a lot of cases to their modern pronunciation. Over the years it continued to evolve with influences from Latin, Greek, French, etc. Later on during conflicts with the French, the English dropped the letter u in words ending –our. Though the English picked this practice back up later, the Americans never did (this is why Americans can’t spell).

The 19th Century is where I would have liked the evolution of the English language to stop, but unfortunately it continues. Now the English language has come to a point of dropping letters for ‘IM English’. I hope this won’t be the next evolution in English, but it looks like it is moving that way.

I would love to know what others think of the Evolution of the English Language, as well as what I may have missed.

For more information about the history of the English language in America, a friend recommended a book called Made in America by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson’s book explores the history of the English language in the United States and the evolution of American culture.