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Words Can Fool You Too!

Agosto 2018
Il detto popolare afferma che l’apparenza inganna. Lo stesso possiamo dire dei suoni, in particolar modo in inglese, una lingua che presenta un’infinità di omofoni, che servono a confonderci e a creare giochi di parole. Dai tempi di Shakespeare fino a Donald Trump.

di Sarah Presant Collins

File audio:


Homophones are words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings, like ‘here’ (h-e-r-e, the adverb of place) and the verb ‘to hear’ (h-e-a-r). English is absolutely full of homophones. And not only are homophones extremely common, they also make up a significant part of the core vocabulary we use every day.


We can’t even count to ten without coming across many homophones: number ‘one’ sounds just the same as ‘won’, the past of the verb ‘to win’. Just as the number ‘two’ sounds the same as the preposition of direction ‘to’ and the adverb ‘too’ (t-o-o). There are dozens of examples. Another one: the preposition and adverb ‘by’ (b-y) sounds like the verb ‘to buy’ (b-u-y) and ‘bye’ (b-y-e) in ‘good bye’ or ‘bye bye’.It seems very strange to have so many common words that sound the same but mean totally different things.


The explanation is probably because English has adopted so much vocabulary from other languages that, over time, words that once sounded a bit similar came to be pronounced exactly the same way.
Homophones are both a curse and a blessing in English. They mean we all make spelling mistakes – even native speakers! But they also mean that headline writers, poets, and comedians can have fun making puns. A pun is a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word, often to make us laugh. Homophones are just one type of pun.


Take for example a 2013 headline from the Scottish tabloid newspaper the Daily Record. “There Will Be Hell Toupée” headed an article about Donald Trump’s threat to sue the Scottish government over a wind farm that was being built next to one of his golf courses. A ‘toupée’ is a kind of wig, an accessory that many suspect Trump wears. But the word ‘toupée’ sounds just the same as ‘to pay’. “There will be hell to pay” is an idiom meaning that serious trouble will occur in the near future. This pun isn’t strictly a homophone because ‘to pay’ is two words – but it is still wonderfully ingenious.


Shakespeare loved playing with language and there are quite a few homophone puns in his work. For example, there’s a famous homophone in a speech in the play Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent. Made glorious summer by this Son of York.” It’s normally the ‘Sun’ (s-u-n), the astronomic body – that appears in summer not the ‘son’ (s-o-n), someone’s male offspring –. ‘Sun’ and ‘son’ sounded more or less the same in Shakespeare’s day as now, so we can still recognise the pun. But there are some examples of homophone puns that would have made sense to audiences in Shakespeare’s time but are lost to us now because their pronunciation has changed.


The designers of voice recognition software have a real challenge when it comes to words that sound the same or very nearly. Try making a machine understand the difference between: “You discussed me” and “You disgust me”. I can’t do it!
Sometimes the automatic spellcheck  on your computer will help you out. It knows that something is wrong with this sentence: “It’s to (t-o) difficult.” But it doesn’t spot the error in: “It’s two (t-w-o) difficult.” So, as the technology may not always be enough, it’s a good idea to have in mind the most common homophones so you can check you’ve spelled them correctly. 


Don’t read these senteces yet! Listen to the audio first and find where the homophones are:

•    Have you read that book with the red cover?
•    It’s two kilometres to the beach. That’s too far to walk in the sun.
•    They’re over there with their friends.
•    I don’t know whether the weather will be nice tomorrow.
•    Did you see who threw the stone through the window? No, I don’t know who it was.
•    I have green eyes.
•    The wind blew the blue balloon up into the sky.
•    Have you seen the final scene of the film?
•    Which witch is the scariest?

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