Meet the UI Press: Homophones and homographs

Meet the UI Press is a recurring feature that delves into issues affecting academic publishing, writing, education, and related topics.

Homophones vex us from the day we put away our toolbox of infant noises and attempt to engage other human beings with language.

As a professional writer I am of course highly trained to avoid homophone-related confusion. It’s not a matter of intelligence or, God forbid, virtue. I just get lots of practice in milieus where one faces abject humiliation and the Thorny Boot of Misdemeanor when he/she misuses a word.

carnivalBut let your guard down a little bit and boom, disaster ensues. Not long ago, for instance, as I skated along writing about animals, I substituted “carnival” for “carnivore.” The best part is I turned in the manuscript with the mistake. Just last night, messaging with someone, I meant to say “relationship” and typed “revolution,” a Freudian slip so troubling I don’t want to know what it means.

One might blame these kinds of mistakes on being tired. Or on trying to do two things at once, or listening to music, or pondering that now-moving pile of laundry.

Occasionally, alas, I am betrayed by that inner voice that dictates what I intend to write. My version of that voice mumbles, and suddenly I’m trying to pass off “carnivore” as “carnival” and all the editors are laughing at me.

But the real blame is on our forebears.

I ask myself and the unknowable cosmic beings that ignore our entreaties: Why did linguistic practical jokers create this series of mine fields? What lack of imagination led to English speakers having to cope with the their-they’re-there conundrum? Ethnologue tells us that humans speak about 6700 languages worldwide, and we know hundreds—probably thousands—have gone extinct in the past. In other words, humans have ascribed meaning to a bewildering symphony of sounds. Why do we have to make two words sound so much alike?

There is a difference in the problem, I realize that. “Carnival” and “carnivore”—it’s just bad linguistic luck that they sound alike. Some words have to sound the same even in Esperanto. It just happens.

But why turn the concepts behind “our” and “are” into homophomes? Those are important words. English-speakers use them all the time. It’s as if some all-powerful king or queen or pope heard this sort of thing taking root and decided, “Not my problem,” even though these sorts of people meddled in every other aspect of human affairs. Now their laws regarding when you can eat mince pie don’t matter, but we’re still stuck trying to sort out if we should pay someone a complement or a compliment, and the thing is, if you like puns, you could write a sentence where either word would work.

I know, I know. We’ll all get by, until we reduce written communication to IMHO and LOL and IIRC. Then we’ll watch the sun rise on a happier day, shedding nary a tier for the fact we have traded the beauty and subtlety of the obsolete Mother Tongue for the freedom to write a sentence without looking like a dope.