Jill Pertler

Jill Pertler

The English language is fraught with conundrums. It’s probably why I love it so much. It’s never boring and continually keeps me learning (or guessing – or both).

One of these complexities has to do with words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings — our good friend, the homonym.

When it comes to homonyms, you get two for the price of one — two types of homonyms, that is. Sometimes they are spelled the same, pronounced the same, but have different meanings: The river bank is next to the bank where I have my savings account.

These similarly spelled homonyms are called homographs. I don’t have any problem with homographs. You learn to spell one word and get to use it in two ways. I’ve always been an advocate of multitasking.

If all homonyms could be homographs, the world would be a simpler place. English would make more sense. Spelling would be orderly and logical.

If only.

English is not simple, orderly or logical, and one of the key culprits to this lack of simplicity is the group of homonyms known as homophones. These are words that sound alike but have different spellings. They force us to memorize correct spellings and meanings and attempt to keep them straight. (Or is it strait?) They’re misguided if their goal is to help us find any meaning there.

Many of these homophones seem so very random. Consistency does not run rampant in the world of homophones.

For instance: dear and deer sound the same, as do hear and here. If the language gods were going to set up two different spellings, why not make them differently the same? If you’re going to go with dear and deer, wouldn’t it make sense to also have hear and heer? Or alternatively dear and dere?

To further complicate matters, not all words with the same word pattern rhyme. There’s dear, hear and wear. To take the lack of logic one step further, the homophone of wear could, for consistency’s sake, be weer or were, but it’s not. It’s where. Another spelling altogether. Who wouldn’t be confused by such arbitrary letter assembly?

It’s befuddling, and I haven’t even openly addressed the trifecta of there, they’re and their, which hardly anyone can keep straight. Except those of us who can are driven completely mad by those of you who can’t. Truth – so there/their/they’re. (Take your pick, but choose carefully.)

The worst offenders are both homographs and homophones, which I guess technically makes them true homonyms. Sole can be a fish, but it also multitasks as the bottom of your foot. Why then do we need an extra spelling – soul – to mean soul as in the essence of our being? Why isn’t sole solely sole?

Further along the spectrum of absurdity: Ever think about the fact that you could eat charred chard or chilly chili? Or that it takes lots of letters to write a letter?

It doesn’t end, this English language labyrinth we (attempt to) communicate with every day. For the most part, I dive headfirst into the intricacies. Although I groan, it’s because of linguistic entities like homonyms that I’ve grown in my love-hate relationship with the English language; I know there’s no other language I’d rather speak and write, and there’s just something that feels right about that.

Homonyms, homographs and homophones – I’ll take them all.

— Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.