A homophone (/hɒməfəʊn/) is a word which is pronounced exactly like another word, as in the case of to, too, and two. Another typical example is see and sea (and the letter C). If the spelling is also the same, it is called a homonym. An example of homonym is file which can mean an object or device where data is stored and also a tool.
English is especially rich in homophones, and there are hundreds of monosyllabic homophones, especially. However, whether they are "true" homophones may depend on the speaker's accent. For example "moose" and "mouse" are homophones in Scottish English and "tree" and "three" in Irish English but neither would be homophones in Received Pronunciation (RP). Other regional differences include the "r" pronouncing areas that differentiate words that are homophones in RP, such as sought and sort.
One group of homophones which never ceases to amuse foreign students is that of the contractions:
- I'd - eyed; I'll - aisle - isle; he'll - heal - heel; there's - theirs; we'd - weed; we’ll - wheel; who’s - whose
- These are the all-time classics which cause severe problems even among native English speakers: it’s - its; they're - there - their; and you're - your.
- Only in non-rhotic accents: aren't - aunt
Likewise, native English speakers may make mistakes with poly-syllabic homophones such as complement/compliment and principal/principle.
Some other common examples
Many of the homophones in this section are repeated to show how they can be used and/or presented in different pronunciation exercises. As stated above, not all these words will be homophones in all accents and this sometimes causes difficulty for teachers who may that their course book seems to be describing a language which they don't themselves speak. However (and thanks to John Wells for his idea of lexical sets) when grouping words by stressed vowel, we can have dialect independent homophones.
- /æ/: band - banned; sac - sack; packed - pact;
- General American: ant - aunt
- /ɑː/ (Am /æ/): draft - draught; passed - past;
- Non-rhotic only: aren't - aunt;
- /aɪ/: buy - by; cite - sight - site; die - dye; dyed - died; eye - I; find - fined; hi - high; higher - hire; I'll - aisle - isle; size - sighs; sighed - side; style - stile; - tied - tide; wine - whine; time - thyme; write - right - rite;
- /aʊ/: flour - flower; hour - our
- /e/: bread - bred; cell - sell; cent - scent - sent; lead (metal) - led; leant - lent; read - red; set - sett (hole in the ground)
- /eə/: air - heir; bare - bear; fair - fare; hair - hare; pair - pear; stairs - stares; they're - there - their; there's - theirs; wear - where
- /eɪ/: ateAmE - eight; brake - break; grate - great; made - maid; mail - male; place - plaice; rain - reign; rains - reigns - reins; sail - sale; shake - sheik (also /ʃiːk/); steak - stake; tail - tale; waste - waist; weigh - way; weight - wait; weighed - wade;
- /ɪ/: billed - build; its - it's; knits - nits; which - witch;
- /ɪə/: dear - deer; hear - here; peer - pier
- /iː/: beat - beet; feat - feet; flea - flee; genes - jeans; he'll - heal - heel; meat - meet; peak - peek; read - reed; sweet - suite; scene - seen; steel - steal; team - teem; we'd - weed; week - weak; we’ll - wheel
- /ɒ/: knot - not
- /ɔː/: board - bored; chord - cord; for - four; hoarse - horse; mall - maul; moor - more; poor - pour; your - you're
- Non-rhotic only: caught - court; fort - fought; sauce - source; saw - sore; sort - sought
- /əʊ/: broach - brooch; hole - whole; know - no; knows - nose; loan - lone; road - rode - rowed; sew - so - sow; sole - soul
- /ʊ/: wood - would
- /uː/: blew - blue; cue - queue; dew - due; flew - flu; hue - Hugh; knew - new; root - route; threw - through; who's - whose; yew - you
- /ʌ/: none - nun; one - won; son - sun
- /ɜː/: earn - urn; heard - herd; tern - turn
- aloud - allowed; bolder - boulder; complacent - complaisant; complement - compliment; forego - forgo; gorilla - guerrilla; principal - principle; weather - whether
There are several letters of the alphabet that are pronounced like words:
- B - be - bee; C - sea - see; I - eye; O - owe; P - pea; Q - queue; R - are; T - tea - tee; U - you; Y - why.
- International Phonetic Alphabet
- Latin alphabet
- Minimal pair
- firstschoolyears.com, List of homophones
- International Business Times, Utah Blogger Fired After Boss Complained Homophone Blog Post 'Associated School with Homosexuality', 4 August 2014.