English words can have the same or similar spelling but different meanings or pronunciations
I have been learning Spanish and get frustrated when encountering a word that has a different meaning. However, Spanish vocabulary does not have as many words with similar spelling or pronunciation as does English. Learning English must be a nightmare for someone trying to understand a sentence like:
“Mary is taking too long going to the shop to buy two presents to present to her sister”.
Why is the English language so confusing? In a previous article, I had explained how the Norman invasion of England in 1066AD introduced a Latin language, old French, into the Old English vocabulary. Old English has a Nordic/Germanic origin and has almost nothing in common with Latin. Mixing two completely different languages created another language, middle English that is very confusing. Often there would be two different words explaining the same thing, words that have the same, or similar pronunciation but different meanings.
Old English and old French had different rules of grammar. Words that come from Old English would have consonant clusters like, knife, when, through, and strong. The first dictionary of the English language was published in 1604AD. The decision of spelling was fairly arbitrary, for example, the original spelling of when was hwen. The chaotic origin of modern English has much to do with its many inconsistencies spelling and grammar.
Words that have the same spelling with different pronunciations are called Heteronyms.
Heteronyms are heterographs that have different spellings and meanings, for example, to/too/two. Heteronyms have different sounds and meanings, for example, desert (leave), desert (arid region).
Examples of heteronyms in confusing sentences:
The bandage was wound around the wound.
the farm was cultivated to produce produce.
The dump was so full that the workers had to refuse more refuse.
We polish the Polish furniture.
There is no time like the present to present the present.
She leaves the leaves on the left. The leaves on the left were left.
A bass was painted on the base of the bass drum.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid in his hospital bed.
There was a row among the rowers about who would row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are presents
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail around the mast.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friends?
A seamstress and a sewer fell down the sewer.
Words that have the same pronunciation with different meanings are called homophones (to/too/two).
Homonyms are homophones that have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings, for example, mean (cruel), mean (as in meaning).
Examples of homonyms and homophones:
He had been driving all night and needed a break. He crashed, smashing his arm; the resulting break landed him in hospital for a month.
The wine seller went to his cell to sell me wine for my cellar.
Are you confused yet?
An adult learning English for the first time would have to be a genius to understand homophones, homonyms, and heteronyms, where the meaning is inferred from the context of the sentence. Perhaps the fastest way to understand these confusing words in the English language is full emersion in an English speaking country or an English language classroom.
Practical English Usage by Michael Swan provides explanations for the many complexities in the English language. Michael Swan’s book is a reference guide, a valuable resource to have handy when you encounter any of the many contradictions in the English language.