If you are willing to go back aways, many words have alternative spellings with the same pronunciation. Take the fishy spelling of The Compleat Angler, for example. But some modern words have two current dramatically different spellings pronounced alike. One example is the spellings of controller and comptroller. In The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope has one character say vittles and another say victuals. Note that these are not homonyms because only one word is being spelled.

In saying "two quite different spellings," I am trying to eliminate spelling variants such as today vs. to-day, colour vs. color, or the example I gave, complete vs. compleat. In such pairs, everyone would naturally pronounce the two spellings alike. That's not the case with vittles vs. victuals, hiccup vs. hiccough, or controller vs. comptroller. Indeed, some people (not I) do not pronounce the last pair alike. So I do not believe that my question is in the same spirit as a previous question. Though there is a distinction to be made, it may be that English has no word for this distinction, and all that can be said is that the words I'm considering have extreme spelling variants.

  • 2
    I think they are homophones.
    – user66974
    Jan 27, 2017 at 18:18
  • 2
    Possible duplicate of Word for a word that changes spelling but not meaning?
    – Drew
    Jan 27, 2017 at 18:24
  • 1
    @Josh The OP's title and your comment mislead me, I've retracted the close vote. Apologies.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 27, 2017 at 18:27
  • 1
    @Drew - it is not the same question.
    – user66974
    Jan 27, 2017 at 18:30
  • 3
    Call them spelling variants
    – NVZ
    Jan 27, 2017 at 18:53

4 Answers 4


"[A] word that has the same pronunciation as one or more other words but has different spelling or meaning" is a homophone.

Source: www.homophones.ml


In your question you specify that they're pronounced the same, and then specify that they are NOT pronounced the same, so I'm unsure which you mean.

Spelled differently and pronounced differently? Those are simply synonyms. Spelling variations on essentially the same word (different spelling, but same pronunciation and definition) would be alternate spellings, not unlike color/colour.


There are inherently two forces in action:

the phenomenon of etymological doublets and differences in phono-orthographic spellings due either to a social or inter-linguistic transliteration. Concerning the first, consider the doublets, 'emergence' and 'emergency'. The two have a transparent etymology dating to the Latin etymon 'emergere' - to give light to/appear. The meaning, and understanding, of the two words grew to differ perhaps on pragmatic grounds: one derivate of 'emergentia' denoted an exigent matter coming to light while the converse denoted appearance of a certain property.

I believe in the exemplar you raised regarding comptroller and controller, they inherently emerge from the same Latin root. The demarcation arises when one considers 'comptroller' a portmanteau of the French verb 'compter', to count and 'controlere', to control. These are not homonyms, for this phrase implies that the two have the same orthography but differing meanings, nor homophones, due to the feasibly distinct phonologies of the respective words from an intermediate language.


I believe this could be considered a cognate within the same language. Your controller/comptroller example makes it even more interesting, as it then becomes a cognate within the same language, but of two different national dialects.

  • Not sure this is correct. Cognates by definition seem to be words that are related based on language derivation, not words that are spelled differently but pronounced alike, which is what the questioner is discussing.
    – freeling10
    Jan 28, 2017 at 5:36
  • @Stephen I have not made myself clear. I am talking about one word with spellings so different that a non-English speaker might be surprised to find that they have essentially the same pronunciation. GEdgar's gaol and jail is a good example. I admit that ketchup and catsup have slightly different pronunciations and that while controller and comptroller are pronounced the same by some like me, there is an alternative pronunciation of comptroller that is different. I'm sorry if these two examples were confusing, but the idea is one word, one pronunciation and two quite different spellings.
    – Airymouse
    Jan 29, 2017 at 0:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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