Thursday, March 29, 2012

The largest homophone set

kw: words, wordplay, homophones

Air, are (a land measure), ere, e'er, err, Eyre, and heir are seven words that are pronounced the same in most regional dialects of English. I collect groups of homophones (also frequently called homonyms), and of the roughly 800 sets I have gathered, this is the largest. Nearly all the sets have two members, and only a handful have four or more. Of these seven, the two spellings that most clearly express the pronunciation for most people are air, rhyming with hair, and heir, in which the h is silent.

These words are not equally familiar, so let's define each:
  • air is the stuff we breathe. The word can also refer to a popular tune, though this usage is falling out of use: "She sat at the piano and played a simple air."
  • are as a measure of land is to be distinguished from the verb of the same spelling, but pronounced to sound just like the letter r. An are is 100 square meters, and the more familiar measure hectare is 100 ares, roughly equal to 2.5 acres.
  • ere is a poetic preposition meaning "before". It is found at the center of the palindrome that expresses a possible thought by Napoleon in exile: "Able was I ere I saw Elba."
  • e'er Is another poetic expression, a contraction for ever. You'll find it in some older songs, and in many hymns, which frequently rhyme fore'er with there or where.
  • err is a verb meaning to make a mistake: "To err is human; to forgive, divine."
  • Eyre is the surname of the heroine of the novel Jane Eyre. The name is sometimes pronounced with a more distinct y sound, but this is rather rare, and tends to make it a two-syllable word.
  • heir is someone who will inherit. While most people assume an heir is a person's child, your actual heir is whomever you designate in your will. You do have a will, don't you? Without one, upon your untimely death, the government of the state or nation in which you live will decide who your heirs are.
Most European languages are like English in being rather poor in homophones. By contrast, Chinese has so many that, if the language were written with an alphabet rather than ideographic characters, it would be almost impossible to decipher. Even Japanese, which started out as a wholly unique language, has adopted so many Chinese pronunciations of common words that some homophone groups in Japanese have thirty or more members. Of course, this means that these Asian languages are much richer in possibilities for punning!

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