Heteronym (linguistics)

A heteronym (also known as a heterophone) is a word that has a different pronunciation and meaning from another word but the same spelling. These are homographs that are not homophones. Thus, lead (a metal element) and lead (a leash or halter to direct an animal) are heteronyms, but mean (intend) and mean (average) are not, since they are pronounced the same. Heteronym pronunciation may vary in vowel realisation, in stress pattern (see also Initial-stress-derived noun), or in other ways.


A heteronym is a homograph that is not a homophone, a word that has a different pronunciation and meaning from another word with the same spelling. Heteronym pronunciation may vary in vowel realisation, in stress pattern, or in other ways.

"Heterophone" literally just means "different sound", and this term is sometimes applied to words that are just pronounced differently, irrespective of their spelling. Such a definition would include virtually every pair of words in the language, so "heterophone" in this sense is normally restricted to instances where there is some particular reason to highlight the different sound. For example, puns normally involve homophones, but in the case of heterophonic (or imperfect) puns, the two words sound different, and yet similar enough for one to suggest the other (for example, mouth and mouse).


Most heteronyms are doubles. Triple heteronyms are extremely rare; two examples, sin and mobile, are listed below.

Proper nouns can sometimes be heteronyms. For example, the final syllable of Oregon is pronounced like the word in by residents of that state in the United States, while in the name of the village of Oregon in Wisconsin, the final syllable is pronounced like the word on. Other examples include local pronunciations of Cairo, Georgia; Versailles, Kentucky; and Milan, Tennessee—compared to the more well-known Cairo, Versailles, and Milan—or the difference between the pronunciation of Louisville, Kentucky () and the town of Louisville, New York ().

There are also pairs which ignore case and include both initialisms and regular words, e.g., US and us.

Heteronyms can also occur in non-alphabetic languages. For example, the Chinese character 行 can be pronounced háng, meaning "profession", or xíng, meaning "OK".


Heteronymns with definitions


In some of these cases, American and British English pronunciations differ.

For a longer list, see wikt:Category:English heteronyms.


In French, most heteronyms result from certain endings being pronounced differently in verbs and nouns. In particular, the third person plural verb ending -ent is silent.

Modern Greek

Modern Greek spelling is largely unambiguous, but there are a few cases where a word has distinct learned and vernacular meaning and pronunciation, despite having the same root, and where is pronounced /ja/ vs. /i.a/; there are also a few cases where the different readings of <μπ> and <ντ> give different words. Some of these distinctions are being neutralized in modern speech.


Italian spelling is largely unambiguous, with a few exceptions:
  • open and closed and are not distinguished;
  • the voiced and unvoiced pronunciations of are not distinguished;
  • stress is not marked except when it is on the final syllable.

    When stress is on the final, the vowel is written with an accent: mori 'mulberries' and morì 'he/she died'. Some monosyllabic words are also differentiated with an accent:e /e/ 'and' and è /ɛ/ 'he/she is'. These cases are not heteronyms.

    Some common cases:

    :Pronunciations are shown using standard Italian orthography with the diacritic <´> for closed vowels <é> /e/ and <ó> /o/; and the diacritic <`> for closed vowels <è> /ɛ/ and <ò> /ɔ/.


    Dutch has heteronyms which vary in stress position, known as [ klemtoonhomogramen] 'stress homograms', such as appel: /ˈɑpəl/ 'apple' vs. /ɑˈpɛl/ 'appeal' (formerly written appèl). Other examples include beamen, bedelen, hockeyster, kantelen, misdadiger, overweg, verspringen, verwerpen.

    The word plant is generally pronounced /plɑnt/, but may be pronounced /plɛnt/ in the sense 'he/she plan'.


    German has few heteronyms, for example:
  • Some vary in stress position: umfahren 'to knock down' vs. 'to bypass'; ubersetzen 'to translate' vs. 'to traverse'; Spiegelei 'fried egg' vs. 'mirroring'.
  • Some are compounded differently: Staubecken as Stau-becken vs. Staub-Ecken; etc.
  • Several are borrowings: modern 'moldiness' (derived from Moder) vs. 'modern' (borrowed from French).