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Heteronyms are words with identical spelling and unique definition and pronunciations. For example, read (I have read that book; I will read that book), close (The door is close; I will close the door), attribute (I will attribute that to Jim; One of Jim's attributes is stalwartness), etcetera.

Are they unique to the English language?

Why do we have heteronyms in our language?

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If you also consider also languages that are usually written with abjads (consonantal alphabets), such as Hebrew and Arabic, then you have lots of heteronyms. In Hebrew, for example, the letters בקר can be read as boker ("morning"), bakar ("cattle"), biker ("visited," 3rd person masc. sing.), etc. –  Alex Dec 18 '11 at 22:14
    
And if you go to the master script of heteronyms, the Pahlavi script, even a simple word can often theoretically be read in several dozen ways—in fact, if we exclude phonotactics and what words actually existed, often several thousand ways. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 6 at 15:41

2 Answers 2

We have many heteronyms in our language because English spelling is so illogical. Other languages do have heteronyms. For example, googling "French heteronyms" turns up the pair

des fils: /fil/ some thread,
un fils: /fis/ a son,

which only works because the French spelling of un fils is irregular.

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It's not all down to illogical spelling. Even if you changed the spelling of fine to something more "logical" so we weren't tempted to rhyme it with cine, you'd still have the heteronymic meanings of adjective:good and noun:penalty. And several other more or less closely related meanings, some of which might be considered "different words". –  FumbleFingers Dec 19 '11 at 1:07
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@FumbleFingers: His point is that it is very easy for unrelated, differently pronounced words in English to be spelt the same. This is an entirely valid point. –  ThePopMachine Dec 19 '11 at 4:35
    
@ThePopMachine: Obviously inconsistent/illogical spelling can cause heteronyms. Other times (heir and air) it prevents them. Peter overstates the case for illogical spelling, which largely a side-effect of the main cause anyway - the fact that English is a "whore" language which has taken in disparate words from so many other languages. –  FumbleFingers Dec 19 '11 at 4:54
    
My point is that if the spelling determines the pronunciation, it's impossible to have heteronyms (two words with different spellings and different pronunciations). English has so many heteronyms because the spelling is so irregular. French has relatively few heteronyms, and the ones they do have, they often put a gratuitous accent mark on one of the meanings to differentiate them. (For example, meaning "where" and ou meaning "or". The accent grave makes no pronunciation difference for the letter "u"; it's added so that "where" and "or" are not spelled the same.) –  Peter Shor Dec 6 at 15:48

French has d'eux (of them), and deux (two). Borderline case, admittedly, but famous in legal circles for the will that left "a chacun d'eux/deux mille francs" leaving the lawyers to argue whether it was an apostrophe, meaning each heir got a thousand, or a speck, meaning each got two thousand. And that is why old-fashioned English courts still do not use punctuation.

(That's the story I heard, and I'm sticking to it)

Oh, all right then: there are far more possible meanings than combinations of sounds or letters, so some combinations get used more than once. English, having a larger vocabulary than most languages, has more of such 'multiple-uses' though most are either written the same with different pronunciation (homographs) or vice versa (homophones).

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I think the question itself is trivial, but +1 for that far superior bit of trivia about the French lawyers. More specifically, for or a speck - love it! :) –  FumbleFingers Dec 20 '11 at 23:57

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