When two phrases are pronounced alike but have different spelling and meaning, can we call them homophones? e.g. "ice-cream" and "I scream", "nitrate" and "night rate", "that's tough" and "that stuff". Or is there another term for them? What linguistic phenomenon distiguishes these near homophones?

I've checked the putative duplicate at "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream"- Is there a term that describes this 'word play'?
but it isn't exactly what I'm asking here.

  • 1
    They're not really homophones in the sense that prince and prints are to most Anglophones. Or dear and deer to all Anglophones. Jul 17, 2014 at 2:00
  • Is it a silent "t" in prints ? In England ?
    – Centaurus
    Jul 17, 2014 at 2:02
  • 2
    I've never met anyone who pronounces prints/prince differently unless they're grossly caricaturing normal speech. Many people think they normally differentiate them, but they're usually mistaken. See this discussion Jul 17, 2014 at 2:14
  • 1
    @tchrist Perhaps to you. To me, the initial vowels are exactly the same; the only thing that makes the two different is the aspiration of the /k/ and subsequent automatic devoicing of the /r/. Jul 17, 2014 at 8:19
  • 1
    There are others like me, but we are massively in the minority these days, as general pronunciation in the UK has become less precise. Many sloppy pronunciations are pervading the UK, such as the inclusion of an extra "i" in the pronunciation of "mischievous", to make it "mischievious" with the stress a syllable too late. There are many others, but I stick to how words were pronounced when I learnt them. Aug 12, 2014 at 17:58

3 Answers 3


The simple answer is no. Ice cream and nitrate are not homophonous with I scream and night rate.

If you go by tchrist’s comment above, it appears that some dialects of English pronounce the initial vowel in I scream [ɑɪ] and ice cream [ʌɪ] differently, but this is not universally applicable, and I would venture that this split is limited to a minority of dialects.

What distinguishes the two sets in all varieties of English is their syllable boundaries: morphological boundaries nearly always create phonemic syllable boundaries. In phonemic writing, indicating syllable boundaries with a period ‹.›, the two pairs look like this:

Ice cream /ˈaɪs.krim/ and nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/
I scream /aɪ.skrim/1 and night rate /ˈnaɪt.reit/

In English phonology, it is a well-known and universal fact2 that an unvoiced plosive /p t k/ is aspirated when it both occurs immediately before a stressed vowel and syllable-initially, but not in the syllable coda; in the case of /t/, this aspiration usually shows up as a slight affrication with little true aspiration. The initial aspiration applies only if the plosive is the first sound in the syllable, so initial /sp st sk/ are not aspirated. If an approximant (such as /r l j/) immediately follows an aspirated plosive, the aspiration of the plosive is carried over into the approximant, which is rendered devoiced.

If you notice, the first line in the quote above has syllable boundaries that cause the /k/ and the /t/ to be the first sound in the second syllable, while the second line has syllable boundaries that result in this not being the case. Therefore, in the first line, the plosives are aspirated and the following /r/ devoiced, while in the second, the plosive is unaspirated and the /r/ voiced; phonetically (in generic, Broadcast American):

Ice cream [ˈaɪs.kʰɹ̥ʷiːm] and nitrate [ˈnaɪ.tˢɹ̥ʷɛɪt]3
I scream [aɪ.skɹʷiːm] and night rate [ˈnaɪt.ɹʷɛɪt]

Since syllable-final /t/ is often reduced to an unreleased [t̚] or even just a glottal stop [ʔ], the second pair can be even further distinguished:

nitrate [ˈnaɪ.tˢɹ̥ʷɛɪʔ] vs. night rate [ˈnaɪt̚.ɹʷɛɪt̚] or [ˈnaɪʔ.ɹʷɛɪʔ]




1 I don’t mark the stress in this one since it’s a phrase, not a lexeme: it can be stressed on either syllable, depending on emphasis.

2 I’m not sure whether it applies in Indian English, and there are probably quite a few variants of African English where it doesn’t apply either; so understand ‘universal’ here to refer to ‘all dialects of British, Irish, Scottish, US, Canadian, South African, and Antipodean English’.

3 The sequence [tˢʰ] followed by the retroflex [ɹʷ] (or in American English more commonly [ɻʷ]) will normally merge somewhat, causing the /t/ to become retroflex as well. A more accurate phonetic notation would be [t͡ʂɹ̥ʷ], but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll ignore this here and just write [tˢɹ̥ʷ].

  • 3
    I have a friend from Kentucky who pronounces ice cream as ass cream.
    – Frank
    Jul 17, 2014 at 9:01
  • @Frank Though he probably pronounces I scream as ah scream, too, right? And would pronounce ass cream more like ayes cream (as in ‘for aye’, not as in ‘the ayes have it’). Jul 17, 2014 at 9:04
  • I don't know, I've never heard him say I scream but his 'I' is generally quite 'Ah'ish so you could be right. I shall ask him next time we meet (I'll also ask him to say ass cream which I think will sound like ess cream).
    – Frank
    Jul 17, 2014 at 9:09
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    The reason I have [ʌɪ] in icecream is classic Canadian Raising before an unvoiced consonant. This version is common in North America, and may even be the dominant majority: my suspicion is that it is. It also occurs therefore in high school [ˈhʌɪskul] (said altogether, the normal way, with a single stress) but not a high school [ˈhaɪ ˈskul] for just some school where everyone is high. This is how we still tell writer from rider despite the middle consonant turning into as simple [ɾ], since the raising happens in the first one only.
    – tchrist
    Jul 17, 2014 at 14:04
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    @Luis The only name I know for this is near-homophone. Jul 17, 2014 at 21:58

HOMOPHONIC PHRASES are also called oronyms (also called a continunym or a slice-o-nym)

JUNCTURES help differentiate homophonic phrases.

  1. A term used in modern linguistics to describe a distinctive feature of language. Juncture is defined by H. Whitehall in his Structural Essentials of English as an interruption of normal transition between contiguous speech sounds.
  2. Linguistics - The transition from one speech sound to the next, either within a word, as between (t) and (r) in nitrate, or marking the boundaries between words, as between (t) and (r) in night rate. http://www.yourdictionary.com/juncture

  3. The set of phonological features signalling a division between words, such as those that distinguish "a name" from "an aim". http://www.thefreedictionary.com/juncture

  • The exact site of juncture is what helps us differentiate "I scream" from "Ice cream" and perceive they are not true homophones.

Juncture, usually symbolized by the sign "+" is marked by a fading off of the voice and a pause. In the two groups "peace talks" and "pea stalks", juncture occurs after the [s] in peace and after the [i] in pea. Other examples of this differentiation by juncture are:

  • I scream x Ice-cream
  • a name x an aim
  • night rate x nitrate
  • that scum x that's come
  • that's tough x that stuff

Structural Essentials of English, H.Whitehall, Longmans, 1966.

Other references: 1. http://www.amazon.com/Structural-essentials-English-Harold-Whitehall/dp/B0006AUFAO 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juncture

  • 1
    It seems, according to the Wikipedia link, that there is actually a term for these (or several, though I'd never seen or heard any of them): they are oronyms (or slice-o-nyms). Aug 11, 2014 at 16:19
  • I've edited and tried to improve the answer. Thanks.
    – Centaurus
    Aug 11, 2014 at 23:10
  • @Janus: The term oronym was coined by Gyles Brandreth in The Joy of Lex (1980). I guess it's as good as any, and I doubt such an erudite chappie as Brandreth would have coined it if there had been any pre-existing credible candidate available to him. Aug 12, 2014 at 16:53
  • @FumbleFingers Could you please explain what you mean by your last 10 words ? (if there had been any .....) Thank you.
    – Centaurus
    Aug 12, 2014 at 16:59
  • Do you mean "if a better term had already been coined." ?
    – Centaurus
    Aug 12, 2014 at 17:00

The phonetic representations I would argue are:

Ice cream = [ʌis.kʰɹ̥im]

I scream = [ɑi.skɹim]

This uses Canadian raising, as I'm from western Canada, which distinguishes the I's.

Also note the k is aspirated, with a spread glottis for 'Ice cream,' and unaspirated(, not necessarily with a closed glottis, though), for 'I scream.'

  • Nearly everyone in North America has that.
    – tchrist
    Dec 13, 2016 at 3:59

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