It just occured to me that there are words in English that have two different meanings, two different pronunciations and are written exactly the same.

For example "present" can be interpreted as the tense when pronounced /ˈprezənt/ or as a synonym of "demonstrate" when /priˈzent/

Other examples from the top of my head: "read", "live".

I don't think I have seen that in any other language. In most languages you can't tell the spelling of a word by hearing it, but you call articulate it correcly when you're reading it. It seems that in English you can't do either of those.

Did English ever have accent marks to distinguish between those? How did it end up like that?

  • 1
    Per this answer to an earlier question adjectival learned is "sometimes, especially archaically, learnèd". We don't usually bother with that sort of thing today because there are so many potentially ambiguous usages it would be a drop in the ocean. Context invariably makes everything clear. Feb 12, 2014 at 13:47
  • Don't miss your chance to see the Stones live in Perth. They don't reside there permanently, so you need to go on one of the dates they're performing in the flesh if you want to see them. Feb 12, 2014 at 13:56
  • 1
    How do you pronounce "j'ai deux fils" in French? (Although homographs are pretty rare in French because they use accent marks they wouldn't otherwise use to distinguish cases like this. But that just makes spelling harder.) Feb 12, 2014 at 15:37

1 Answer 1


Your premise is wrong. Homographs that are not homophones exist in a great many languages, and in a great variety of writing systems. Germanic, Slavic, Sinitic; Latin, Cyrillic, Hanzi; you name it.

To distinguish lead from lead, 易 from 易, замок from замок, Heroin from Heroin you have to rely on context. Some languages might try to help you out by using diacritics (Spanish, French, Greek) or stress marks (Russian), but others will not (Modern German, Modern English).*

When there's not enough context, all bets are off, but keep in mind that that is not some weird exception, but rather the default situation. Any sequence of characters in any language is free to have as many different meanings as people choose to give it, and is thus prone to being ambiguous with not enough context provided. (And remember how there are complete homonyms, where not just the spelling but also the pronunciation are identical. Yet everyone makes do with them just fine.)

Present vs. present is an example of an initial-stress-derived noun, which are extremely common in English. The thing is, these homographs in particular are exceptionally easy to tell apart, because one is a verb and another is a noun. You'll typically need very little context to tell what part of speech you are looking at.

As to read, it actually nicely demonstrates another problem still: we likely have the pair of homographs because otherwise we'd have a pair of different homographs. That is, the past-tense read actually used to be spelled "red", but that in turn conflicted with the adjective red. We have prior questions on that.

* And of course at the extreme end of this spectrum you have systems like Japanese, where every single kanji has two readings, by design, so as a complete layman I can't possibly tell how to read anything at all, until some kind person comes along and spells it out for me in hiragana. Yet lo and behold, the system is alive and thriving, and has been forever, and will go on to outlive me.

  • Just a minor correction: not every single kanji in Japanese has both an onyomi and a kunyomi; some have only one (many kokuji, for example, have no onyomi, and some—bizarrely—have no kunyomi). And of course many have at least five different kunyomi and three or four onyomi, which just makes them absolutely odious. For example, the railway line between (kunyomi) 埼玉 Saitama and (onyomi) 東京 Tōkyō is called the 埼京 Saikyō line, whereas the line between Tōkyō and (kunyomi) 成田 Narita is called the 京成 Keisei line, where kei = kyō. Feb 12, 2014 at 17:12
  • 1
    Well you seem to know your languages, thanks. I was indeed thinking of Greek and Spanish when I made that statement. I would upvote you but don't have enough reputation.. :P
    – papanikge
    Feb 12, 2014 at 21:44
  • Erm, may I ask exactly what the second meaning of Heroin is?
    – Joe Z.
    Mar 4, 2015 at 22:13
  • @JoeZ: yes, you may. You may even look it up.
    – RegDwigнt
    Mar 5, 2015 at 10:42
  • I looked it up on Wiktionary and couldn't find it there, which is why I asked.
    – Joe Z.
    Mar 5, 2015 at 17:27

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.