What are Heteronyms?

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at Heteronyms. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.​

If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.

​Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lesson. We’re having a pronunciation focus today looking at something called Heteronyms.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the word Heteronym before. It’s usually something not many students have heard about, but it is something that can cause a lot of confusion. And that’s why we’re going to have a look at it today. We’re going to find out what a Heteronym is and if there are any pronunciation patterns.

There aren’t really any pronunciation rules in English like in a lot of other languages, but when you start to look at certain words or certain spellings, certain sounds, you can begin to see patterns. And those patterns can be really helpful in your speaking. Quite often when you find those patterns, you can find parallels with pronunciation in your language of similar words. But this probably won’t be the case today. We did a previous lunchtime lesson where we were looking at common pronunciation patterns. If you want to have a look at that, you can find the recording of the lesson here.
What is a Heteronym?
First of all, what is a heteronym? Heteronyms are words which have the same spelling, but a different meaning. Also, even though they are written the same way, their pronunciation is different. And that’s what can make them so tricky for people who are learning English. And we do have a lot of them in English, I’m sure you’re aware of that.
Let me give you quite a basic example, the verb readRead is a heteronym, although the core meaning of the word doesn’t actually change, the verb is in the present aspect or the past aspect. So, the meaning does slightly change because you read now or you read yesterday. As an example:

  • We have to read /riːd/ a book for school. (present)
  • Last week I read /red/ a book. (past)

With heteronyms, just like with all language, context is key. So, please remember, language without context isn’t language. We need to have a look at how we’re using the word, and that will help you identify what kind of word it is. This will then subsequently help you with how you’re going to pronounce that word.
Which function has a word?
Here are some example sentences. Have a think about how you would pronounce them.

  • We wound the bandage around the wound.
  • He shed a tear after he saw the tear in the painting.
  • When the fire was close, the authorities had to close the road.
  • When people row boats they often row with their partner.

Now, we’re going to analyse these sentences together to figure out how to pronounce them correctly. As a first step, we need to find out what function  the word has in each sentence. Is it a noun, a verb or an adjective? See the solutions below: 

  • We wound (verb) the bandage around the wound (noun).
  • He shed a tear (noun) after he saw the tear (noun) in the painting.
  • When the fire was close (adjective), the authorities had to close (verb) the road.
  • When people row (verb) boats they often row (verb) with their partner.

As you see, in the second and the fourth example it’s quite possible that they can have the same function but still have a different meaning and a different pronunciation.

How to find out the right pronunciation?
In the second step, we think about the pronunciation. I’m going to show you a great way to check pronunciation. The amazing thing about learning English now is that you have all of these brilliant resources at your fingertips for free. So, if you look at that first sentence and you’re not sure how to pronounce that word wound, I’m going to go and look it up in the Longman dictionary. It’s a really brilliant online dictionary. It’s my favourite one, along with the Cambridge Online, which is also really useful. But the Longman has much better resources. Let’s look up the word wound. Don’t forget our analysis from before. We have wound as a verb and as a noun, so we need to consider this when we’re looking up a word.
So, if we look up the word wound in the Longman dictionary we find this:

Image of definition of the word wound as a noun

The meaning under 1 perfectly matches the one in our example sentence. So, to find out how to pronounce it, we can simply click on the speaker. Red for British and blue for American pronunciation. Now we know, that the pronounce the word  wound (noun) like this  /wuːnd/. Repeat it!

Now, scroll down until you find entries to the word wound with the function of a verb. The first entry we’ll find is this:

Image of definition of the word wound as a verb

But does the meaning match to the one in our sentence? Not really. So don’t forget to check this as well, when looking up a word. Let’s scroll down some more. Eventually you’ll find this entry: 

Image of the word wound in past participle

That’s exactly the one we were looking for, the meaning matches the one in our sentence. Again, you can press the speaker and repeat after it.

So, to come back to our example sentence, we now know that this is the correct pronunciation:

  • We wound /waʊnd/  the bandage around the wound /wuːnd/.

Now you can look up the pronunciation for the heteronyms in the other sentences. And remember, it is important to say it out loud because sounds can be different inside your head. 

Pronunciation pattern
With some heteronyms there is actually quite a useful pronunciation pattern  which you can apply. Have a look at these examples. And just like before, I want you to think about what function they have in the sentence and how you would pronounce them.

  • The farmer has to produce the produce.
  • You record a record in a studio.
  • It’s dangerous to desert the army in the desert.
  • You will have to project your voice when you explain the project.
  • John will present the present to Sarah.
  • subject my friends to pain when I discuss the subject of my operation.
  • object to the object being included as evidence!
  • They refuse to move the refuse.

Did you notice anything? We’ve got either verbs or nouns. Now, we need to think about whether in our pronunciation there’s a pattern to these. It’s all related to stress, the word stress. Let me show you:

  • The farmer has to produce (v) the produce (n).
  • You record (v) a record (n) in a studio.
  • It’s dangerous to desert (v) the army in the (n) desert.
  • You will have to project (v) your voice when you explain the project (n).
  • John will present (v) the present (n) to Sarah.
  • subject (v) my friends to pain when I discuss thesubject (n) of my operation.
  • object (v)to the object (n) being included as evidence!
  • They refuse (v) to move the refuse (n).

I’ve underlined you the stressed parts of the words, do you notice anything? What’s the rule? Look at the pattern.

If we have a two syllable heteronym, just like in our examples, the verb has the stress on the second syllable, but if it’s a noun, the stress is on the first syllable. It’s important to remember that on the unstressed syllable, we’re pretty much always using the schwa. So for people who don’t know what the schwa is, it’s this symbol /ə/, an upside down e. It is the most common vowel sound in the English language. It’s a neutral vowel sound. Your tongue isn’t doing anything. Your lips aren’t doing anything, your jaw isn’t doing anything. I quite often describe it as if you’ve got something that smells really bad and you imagine you smell it and you go /ə/. That’s the sound that we’re aiming for. Just have a listen in the video for the pronunciation.

It’s important to use the schwa because if you don’t use it the stress pattern changes. I’m sure you’ve probably all had the experience when you’re speaking in English and you know you are using the correct word, but people do not understand you. Most of the time that happens, it’s because you are not using the schwa. You’re using what we call a strong vowel. And if you do that, it doesn’t really matter how many times you say a word, people won’t understand you because word stress is so important to the pronunciation of the English language. Check out the video for a good example about the word carrot. 

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