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A homonym (Greek “same name”) is a word that stands for different terms . Especially in philosophy one speaks of equivocation . An example is the word “dew”, which can mean a rope , the morning rainfall, or a letter from the Greek alphabet .

The term homonymy is a counter-term to the term synonymy : In homonymy , the same linguistic expression stands for different terms, in synonymy different linguistic expressions stand for the same term.

Homonymy has
different meanings,
often different origins
common root
and / or derived meaning,
e.g. B. Runner (athlete / chess piece)
same spelling,
different meaning,
often different pronunciation,
e.g. B. mōdern (rotten) and
modérn (progressive)
same pronunciation,
different meanings,
often different spelling,
e.g. B. paint and grind
Equivocation , homonymy and polysemy in relation



To homonym the adjective belongs homonym . Etymology : ancient Greek ὁμώνυμος homónymos , from ὁμός homós "equal" and ὄνυμα ónyma "name". The adjective equivok belongs to equivocation ; Etymology: Late Latin aequivocus "identical, ambiguous", from aequus "equal" and vocare "to name, to sound".


Classically one speaks of homonymy in lexical terms . Sometimes one speaks of homonymy in morphematic-grammatical terms . The following is only about lexical homonymy.

The term homonymy itself is ambiguous . On the one hand, its meaning depends on the definition of its relationship to the term polysemy , and on the other hand, on the relationship to homophony and homography.

Differentiation from polysemy

The terms homonymy and polysemy are differentiated from one another in different ways. Classically, homonymy is opposed to polysemy. Whether a demarcation makes sense at all is controversial. The terminological criticism of separation leads to either starting from homonymy as a generic term for polysemy and for homonymy in the classic sense, or to seeing homonymy as a special case of polysemy. There are therefore three meanings of the expression:

[1] Homonymy as an antithesis to polysemy;
[2] Homonymy as a generic term for polysemy and homonymy in the sense of [1];
[3] Homonymy as a special case or sub-term of polysemy.

The opposition between homonymy and polysemy, which is still predominant, sees homonymy as a case of accidental lexical ambiguity, the case of polysemy as a case of motivated ambiguity. For polysemy, an etymological relationship of the different meanings is usually required. Not necessarily in a different sense, but also not necessarily in the same sense, others focus on an "inner context" or refer to a "content similarity" of the meanings as a requirement. It is unclear or can be handled differently whether a synchronous or diachronic view, an objective or just a subjective or usual view is used, i.e. whether the expert knowledge of the linguist about etymological relationships or that of the usual language user is used. In some cases it is demanded that the distinction between polysemy and homonymy be based "strictly on the everyday knowledge of speakers that is available in a certain period (typically one generation)". In other words, what was polysemy yesterday can be homonymy today / tomorrow.

This makes the distinction between homonymy and polysemy "uncertain" and random. It is therefore proposed to define homonymy as a special case of polysemy, or the term “homonymy” is proposed as a generic term for polysemy and homonymy (in the traditional sense) while abandoning the distinction.

Improper homonymy, homography, homophony

Improper homonymy

In the case of actual homonymy, the spelling and phonetic form also match the inflection and gender of the word. This must be distinguished from so-called partial or improper homonymy , in which the spelling and the sound are identical, but not the inflection (e.g. bank ) or gender (e.g. the jaw (s )).


Words spelled the same and spoken differently are called homographs ; the corresponding phenomenon is called homography.

  • Example: they rest (rest) - they rest (drove fast)

(See below for more examples .)


Expressions that are spoken in the same way but written differently are called homophones , the phenomenon of homophony.

  • Example: paint - grind

(See below for more examples .)


Spelling pronunciation
equal differently
equal Solid blue.svg Red.svg Solid orange.svg Solid blue.svg Solid orange.svg
differently Solid blue.svg Red.svg
Solid blue.svgHomonym homophone homographRed.svg Solid orange.svg

Whether homographs or homophones are counted as homonyms is a question of terminological definition that is handled differently.

If you include them, there are special cases of homonymy. Since there is also the (normal) case of homonymy without a simultaneous presence of homophony or homography, it is advisable to introduce a separate designation for the normal case . The expression full homonymy is suggested for this .

The graphic on the right can serve to illustrate this terminological position:

Today, however, a homonym is often only used if both spelling and pronunciation are the same .



Homonyms with the same spelling and pronunciation

  • the ball (spherical play equipment), the ball (dance event)
  • the bank (furniture) (bench), the bank (financial institution), bank (sea), shallows in the sea
  • the tap (faucet), the tap (male chicken)
  • the pine (conifer), the jaw (part of the facial skull)
  • loud (noisy), loud (according, according to)
  • the otter (subfamily of the marten), the otter (viper)
  • the hoop (ring), the hoop (ice crystals)
  • Rügen (plural of complaint ), complaints (name of an island)
  • Seven (numeral), seven (shake through a sieve)
  • the ostrich (flightless bird), the ostrich (flower arrangement)
  • the dew (precipitation), the dew (rope), the dew (Greek letter)
  • the goal (wide door, driveway, soccer goal , access in the figurative sense, etc.), the goal (foolish person)
  • be (verb), be (possessive pronoun)
  • white (color), white (verb form of knowledge )
  • the kiwi (bird), the kiwi (fruit)

Homographs with different pronunciations

Note on pronunciation: For example, á stands for a stressed short vowel, for a stressed long vowel ā.

  • Áugust (male first name), the Augúst (month)
  • Collāgen [koˈlaːʒən] (plural of collage ), the collagēn (structural protein in connective tissue)
  • the high time (marriage), the high time (climax)
  • the Humōr (fun), the Hūmor (medicinal for body juice )
  • die Konstánz (constancy), Kónstanz (city on Lake Constance)
  • the Láche (way of laughing), the Láche or Lāche (puddle)
  • the boxes (auditoriums), they lied (didn't tell the truth)
  • mōdern (rot), modérn ( newfangled , modern)
  • Mōntage (plural of Monday ), die Montāge [mɔnˈtaːʒə] (assembly, installation)
  • das or der Revērs [ʁeˈveːʁ] (turned up collar), the Revérs [ʁeˈveʁs] (written commitment)
  • They raced (drove fast) on the freeway - Here we could rest (rest)
  • the reindeer or reindeer (deer), the rentier , French [ʀɑ̃ˈtjeː] (pensioner)
  • the end of the game (end of the game), the end of the game (person who plays)
  • the Tenōr (voice and singer), the Tēnor (basic posture )
  • to translate (to translate into another language), to translate (to cross a river)
  • der Wēg (street), wég (e.g. far away)
  • deal with (e.g. with a demanding person or an object), deal with (difficulties, avoiding obstacles)
  • drive around (bring something down with a moving vehicle), drive around (avoid an obstacle)

Homophones with different spellings

  • the awl (tool), eels (fish)
  • the arm (body part), poor (destitute)
  • the bow (of a ship), buk (past tense of backen )
  • the corps (connection), the choir (group of singers)
  • that (article or companion) that (conjunction)
  • the elf (fairytale figure) , eleven (number)
  • the bevel (beveled edge), phase (stage of development),
  • the furs (plural of fur ), cases (plural of fall )
  • the solid (public), fixed (resistant, hard)
  • the hair dryer (warm fall wind), the hair dryer (hair dryer)
  • today (today), skins (plural of skin )
  • the larch (conifer), the lark (songbird)
  • the body (body), the loaf (bread)
  • the doctrine (teaching, scientific theory) that emptiness (condition of the empty one)
  • the lid (eyelid), the song (piece of music)
  • Loose (plural of lot ), loose (not tied)
  • paint (depict), grind (grind)
  • the sea (body of water), more (opposite of less)
  • the lawn (lawn in the garden), rush (drive fast)
  • the ripe (ring; precipitation), ripe (fully developed)
  • the Rhine (river), the Rain (field), pure (clean), pure (short for in )
  • the page (left page, book page etc.), the string (part of a musical instrument)
  • the participation (part of a name), the participation (participation)
  • the term (plural of term ), the thermal bath (public bath)
  • the wagons (vehicles), the scales (devices for determining weight), vague (uncertain), dare (risk)
  • the orphan (parentless child), the wise (manner, method)
  • the goods (objects for sale), true (inflected form of true )
  • Walls (walls), the turning point (reversal)
  • How do we rate the steel- reinforced concrete pillar that has proven itself in operation ?

The importance of homonymy in lexicography

The distinction between different types of signifier identity for several signifieds is particularly important for lexicography (dictionary creation), for example, when it comes to whether a new lemma has to be established or only sub-items of the meaning or sub-items of the sub-meaning-specific semantic features, pronunciations and grammatical variabilities (e.g. specific sentence construction plans or idioms). Consider the lemma "Zug" in the large dictionary of the German language (Duden). For the Swiss canton and together for the 16 polysemies of this signifier, it contains a separate lemma each (i.e. a total of two lemmas).

Origin and disappearance of homonyms

Origin of homonyms

Homonyms often emerged from originally different morphemes that became the same over time. An example of this is the Middle High German word kiver for the pine (part of the skull) and the Old High German word kienforha for the pine (tree).

However, if the ambiguous words go back to a common etymological root, they are not homonyms but polysemes . In polysemy , the meaning of a word is broken down over time, e.g. B. The word castle today describes both the door lock and a stately building. Note the argument in Adelung [vol. 3, Col. 1539.]: “With horses the lock is the end of the nose, whereby the two nostrils are separated; maybe because the nose closes or ends here. On the artificial rods, the lock is the place where two rods close to each other and are therefore kept in place with rings and screws. 4) An included, i.e. i. A place protected against the attack of an enemy, since there are traces that fortified cities were once named as guarantors as castles. Now only fortified residences of princes, lords and dynasts endowed with certain sovereign rights are called castles; They were formerly called guarantors. A royal palace, a princely palace. A mountain castle, if it is on a mountain, a robbery castle, as far as it is fortified for the security of the robbers, or robbery can be done from it. Building castles in the air, concocting impossible designs. "

Regardless of such historical events, a great many words can have different meanings depending on their use. If certain semantic features differ, such as plural formation or gender, a polysemic word becomes homonymous words that appear in the lexicon as separate (numbered) keywords.

Disappearance of homonyms

Homonymy can be a cause of the disappearance of words (homonym conflict due to ambiguity).


  • If a word has a lot of meanings, i.e. it becomes ambiguous, some meanings often disappear, sometimes even the whole word, for example because other terms are used.
  • If a word sinks in the linguistic level, other words with the same or similar sound are often also displaced: “ Ficke ” (as an expression for “ clothes bag ”) became unusual because of “ fuck ”, a word that is regarded as obscene. Counterexample: If the contexts clearly differ, homophones on the normal language level can also persist alongside the lower level: The vulgar to jack off (masturbate) in English has e.g. B. does not affect the other readings of "jack / to jack / jack-of-all-trades".
  • In Japanese, the number “four” is homophonic with the word for “death” ( shi ). Therefore, there is a second pronunciation ( yon ) for “four”, which is used in contexts where homophony could create an ambiguity with a negative connotation.

Similar terms with different meanings in different dialects of a language are paronyms .

Use of homonyms

Avoidance through homonym additions

The homonym problem can be solved in many cases by switching to other terms. For example, it can be specified that a bench for sitting should always be called “bench”.

In controlled languages, namespaces or qualifiers are added as homonym additions to differentiate homonyms . In dictionaries, superscript numbers are usually used, while in thesauri additions are added in brackets. In the rules for the keyword catalog (RSWK) of Schlagwortnormdatei (SWD) are also for angle brackets ⟨  and  used⟩. For example, there are three entries in the SWD for paragraph :

  • Absatz for the sale of goods, because this is the most common form of use within the purpose of the SWD (literature indexing)
  • Absatz ⟨Text
  • Absatz ⟨Schuhwhereby the term shoe heel is preferable

The homonym additions themselves should be as clearly defined and manageable terms as possible. For example, can be determined that the Homonymzusätze to designate individual disciplines or multiple languages (ring ⟨ vernacular ⟩, Ring ⟨ mathematics ⟩, Ring ⟨ astronomy ⟩ ...)

Intentional and unintentional use

The confusion that sometimes arises from homonyms is particularly evident in the rhetorical figure of colligation .

In riddle poems, a homonym is often used as a solution word, which is paraphrased in the riddle poem with its various meanings.

Homonymous words that are used both as adjectives and nouns sometimes form beautiful pairs of words, for example “deaf dove”, “loud sounds” and “praise”.


The well-known game " Teekesselchen " is based on guessing homonyms.

See also

  • Heteronyms - words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently
  • Homeonym - a word that is similar in meaning, spelling, or pronunciation to another word
  • False friend - a word that is similar to a word from another language, but with a different meaning


  • Angela Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics . Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 2004, ISBN 3-484-31121-5 , p. 141 f.

Web links

Wiktionary: Homonym  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Homonymy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: equivok  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Cf. the first use of homonymous in the first word of Aristotle's category writing : "Homonymous means that which is only the same in word, but different in essence." (Aristotle, categories 1, 1–2a)
  2. a b Bauer, Knape, Koch, Winkler: Dimensions of Ambiguity. In: Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics. 158, 2010, p. 7 (47).
  3. See Piroska Kocsány: Basic Linguistics Course: a workbook for beginners. Fink, Paderborn 2010, p. 61: coincidental .
  4. E.g. in Helmut Rehbock: Homonymie. In: Helmut Glück (Hrsg.): Metzler Lexikon Sprache. 4th edition. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2010.
  5. ^ Michael Bogdal: BA course in German studies: a textbook. Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2008, p. 126: “Homonyms can therefore be defined as words in which two (or more) meanings with the same phonetic or written form have no inner connection, i.e. in which there is no content feature of one meaning with one the other agrees. "
  6. Reiner Arntz, Heribert Picht, Felix Mayer: Introduction to terminology work. 6th edition. Olms, Hildesheim / Zurich / New York 2009, ISBN 978-3-487-11553-5 , pp. 130 f.
  7. Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , p. 22
  8. a b Reiner Arntz, Heribert Picht, Felix Mayer: Introduction to terminology work. 6th edition. Olms, Hildesheim / Zurich / New York 2009, p. 131.
  9. So DIN 2330 (in the version 1992), reported in Arntz, Picht, Mayer: Terminologiarbeit. 6. A. 2009, p. 130.
  10. Cf. Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , p. 48 f.
  11. ^ According to Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book Linguistics. 5th edition. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, p. 160.
  12. ^ So DIN 2330, after Arntz, Picht, Mayer: Terminologiarbeit, 6 A. 2009, p. 130.
  13. z. B .: Hadumod Bußmann : Lexicon of Linguistics (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 452). 2nd, completely revised edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 1990, ISBN 3-520-45202-2 , p. 314; or Metzler Lexicon of Language. 2nd Edition. 2000, p. 280, where homonymy is defined as “the relationship of meaning between two linguistic signs which, if their content does not match, on the expressive side, namely phon. and graph. are identical ". The counter-evidence for a synonymy of homonymy with homophony, which can be found in Duden Volume 5. Foreign dictionary . 2nd Edition. Bibliographisches Institut, Mannheim 1966, p. 278, is in any case canceled by Duden - The large foreign dictionary, 4th edition. Mannheim 2007 [CD-ROM]: “1.b) (earlier) word that reads like another u. is written, but a clearly different content [u. another origin] ”. The example of a castle (door lock and building) is misleading, however, as it is clearly not of any other origin (Adelung, Grimm, Kluge, Pfeifer).
  14. so in: Duden - The large dictionary of the German language, 4th edition. Mannheim 2012 [CD-ROM] See the structure in Duden online
  15. online in the dictionary network
  16. Joachim Grzega tried to explain the homonym conflict as a trigger for the change in vocabulary, which is often wrongly viewed: cf. Joachim Grzega: About homonym conflict as a trigger for word loss . In: Joachim Grzega : Linguistics without technical jargon . Shaker Verlag , Aachen 2001, ISBN 3-8265-8826-6 , pp. 81-98.
    Joachim Grzega: Name change: how, why, what for? Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2004, ISBN 3-8253-5016-9 .