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I was thinking about the word "fillet" recently.

When I teach high school freshmen about the word (in a machining/engineering context), they refuse to believe that it is pronounced "FILL-it," rather than "fill-A." Who can argue with McDonald's commercials for their Fillet-O-Fish sandwich?

I've finally learned to just have the Mirriam-Webster pronunciation cued up on my computer to start the lesson, and explain that the only time it's pronounced like the sandwich is when you are using it to discuss the "food-related" definition. Otherwise it's pronounced "the other way."

Are there other examples of words where the pronunciation depends on the specific definition being used? And is there a special name for words with this property?

The closest I can come up with is "read," but I think the two versions are considered two different words which happen to have the same spelling in that case.

E.g., "I can read the book," vs. "I have read the book."

According to the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary, there is only one word, but one of the usages has an alternate pronunciation"

"noun fil·let \ˈfi-lət, in sense 2b also fi-ˈlā, ˈfi-(ˌ)lā\"

To further clarify, if I have a "fillet of leather," it is pronounced using the standard pronunciation, yet if I have a "fillet of salmon," it is pronounced using the "food" pronunciation.


Thanks for the answer Ian and Greg. I'm still confused about the specifics of the word fillet as per the "thin strip of material" meaning, but I think I get what you're saying about how words being used with different definitions are, linguistically speaking, different words.

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    Linguist think of pronunciation as being what they study and not spelling, so my take on this question is that if pronunciations are different, then there are two different words. However, it might be interesting to investigate why two different words are spelled the same way. – Greg Lee Mar 4 '15 at 19:27
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    Like read present tense vs past tense. Vs the color red, often enough. Or lies, lays, leis, laze, lase for the opposite situation. The problem is that there are at least three definitions of Word, not even counting spelling. – John Lawler Mar 4 '15 at 20:12
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    @GregLee Both derive from the French filet. I can only assume that French cuisine has been a factor in why the meaning relating to meat retains the French pronunciation (and spelling as a valid option) while the pronunciation for other meanings have changed over time. – Håkan Lindqvist Mar 4 '15 at 20:12
  • It's the noun that sounds French. The verb follows English rules. What language was the cook speaking, and what language was the diner speaking? – John Lawler Mar 4 '15 at 20:14
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    And what about if you spell filet with a single L? Does that make it a different word? – John Lawler Mar 4 '15 at 20:37
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As Greg said in his comment, it is important to remember that they are different words even if they happen to share an English spelling. This should help you to come to the definition of what to call them.

These are called homographs that are heterophones. Derived from homo (same) -graph (write) and hetero (different) -phone (sound).

A homograph (from the Greek: ὁμός, homós, "same" and γράφω, gráphō, "write") is a word that shares the same written form as another word but has a different meaning. When spoken, the meanings may be distinguished by different pronunciations, in which case the words are also heteronyms.

  • Dictionaries will typically group definitions by word type. What you have seen here is that there are multiple definitions for fillet as a noun, followed by multiple definitions for fillet as a verb. – Ian MacDonald Mar 4 '15 at 19:38
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    In this specific case, Mirriam-Webster claims that the words are not different, but that there is just an alternate pronunciation used for one of the definitions. (I have updated the question to reflect this) – Bret Wood Mar 4 '15 at 19:38
  • You mustn't confuse a dictionary's organization by spelling and word type to be the same as the dictionary saying that multiple words are the same word. By providing different definitions, the dictionary itself is telling you that they are different words. – Ian MacDonald Mar 4 '15 at 19:42
  • But in the entry for "bow," they actually separate out three different entries for "bow: noun," and two different entries for "bow: verb" It's starting to sound like my issue is more with the structure of dictionaries than words. – Bret Wood Mar 4 '15 at 19:45
  • I just looked at the mess that is their bow page. I don't understand their reasoning for splitting the definitions here when they're both roughly "something bends" and yet they combine the definitions of fillet. I think I'd blame the dictionary on this one. – Ian MacDonald Mar 4 '15 at 19:50
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I think Ian Macdonald has identified the essential point: if words can be distinguished reliably (whether by spelling or pronunciation) they are not the same word. But that's a big if; for example, in Britain a fillet is pronounced the same way whether you refer to a fillet steak or a strip of metal. If the last two letters are to be pronounced "A" you need to use one L, and italicise to indicate that you are using a French term (or conceivably a McDonald's trademark, which neatly sidesteps misleading advertising laws).

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    I noticed that "filet mignon" is spelled with one L, since it is a French term, but "salmon fillet" is spelled with two. Your point about British pronunciation makes the question even more compelling in my mind. How can "fillet" in "salmon fillet" and "leather fillet" be two different words in American English, and the same word in British English, merely because of pronunciation? – Bret Wood Mar 5 '15 at 0:17
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In response to the first question, "Are there other examples of words where the pronunciation depends on the specific definition being used," the noun "affect" and the verb "affect" are spelled the same and have different pronunciations. The noun is accented on the first syllable, which is pronounced /æ/, and the verb is accented on the second syllable, with the fist syllable being pronounced /ə/. This can be verified in most standard dictionaries.

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