Is there a term used to explain how some words change meaning based on the accent? For example, "convict" can be both a noun and a verb depending on which syllable is emphasized. The same is true for "reject", "pervert", "subject", "address" and probably others.

Is there a technical term for this?

  • It all depends what you mean by "word". In some ways, these can all be seen as homonymic pairs of words, each pair consisting of a verb and a noun, with closely-connected meanings, but different pronunciations. It's a bit like the verb have/had, which has the variant pronunciation haff/hat only when in the 'obligation' sense Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 2:05
  • That's a good point about haff/hat. Though it isn't accent, as much as it is phonology. Still, there might be a connection. Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 2:09
  • I don't know why you mention accent. The connection is that semantic variations are expressed through phonological variations in both cases. In this context, I consider the noun/verb differences to be differences in meaning, rather than simply matters of grammar or "parts of speech". Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 2:27
  • You are talking about "stress", which is quite separate from "emphasis".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 14:46

2 Answers 2


Tone is the term. Other languages are much more tonal than English, and are classified as such.

Wikipedia says:

Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning—that is, to distinguish or inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information, and to convey emphasis, contrast, and other such features in what is called intonation, but not all languages use tones to distinguish words or their inflections, analogously to consonants and vowels. Such tonal phonemes are sometimes called tonemes.

  • Isn't there something more specific? "Tone" could refer to other things as well. Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 1:55
  • I expanded my answer. Is "intonation" more of what you were looking for?
    – Gnawme
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 1:59
  • Intonation makes more sense! Thank you for adding the word "toneme"! I'll have to remember that one for the future. I also found the term "suprafixation" which I think might be another good one. Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 2:04
  • You're welcome. I wish downvoters had both the courtesy and the courage to state why they downvoted.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 3:02
  • 6
    "Tone" does not describe what's going on here, neither does "intonation". This is simply a matter of stress, which is related to but distinct from tone and intonation. Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 4:20

Such words are called heteronyms. The famous Venn diagram from Wikipedia:

enter image description here

  • Wow. Thank you for adding this chart! I'm going to save this for help in the future. Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 21:29

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