Heteronyms: Yet Another Reason that English is So Hard to Learn

by | Feb 20, 2023

There are about 7,000 languages spoken on our planet. English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with about 1.5 billion speakers. Note, however, that over 2/3rd of that number consists of non-native speakers. Check out this chart from the World Economic Forum:


According to the New York Times, “English accounts for 60 percent of world internet content and is the lingua franca of pop culture and the global economy. All 100 of the world’s most influential science journals publish in English. Across Europe, close to 100 percent of students study English at some point in their education.” Plus, English is the unofficial language of business, finance, and international law. It’s spoken between pilots and air traffic control.

Why has English risen to the top of the language heap? Two primary reasons are the reach of the British Empire in the 19th Century and then the rise of the US the post-WWII business superpower. Plus, there’s the snowball effect — the more widely spoken English becomes the greater the need for non-native speakers to learn English.

Yet, if we were starting from scratch and deciding what the dominant language should be, we probably wouldn’t pick English because of how difficult it is to learn. It’s a language full of tricky rules, tons of exceptions to those rules, contradictions, inconsistencies, lots of idioms, and pronunciation difficulties.

A spot on example of why English is so hard to learn is the issue of Heteronyms which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, are each of two or more words that are spelled identically but have different sounds and meanings, such as tear meaning “rip” and tear meaning “liquid from the eye.”.

Here’s a fun list of Heteronyms from Marlene Davis:

  • “The bandage was wound around his wound.
  • “The farm was cultivated to produce produce.
  • “The dump was so full that the workers had to refuse more refuse.
  • “We must polish the Polish furniture shown at the store.
  • “He could lead if he could get the lead out.
  • “The soldier decided to desert his tasty dessert in the desert.
  • “Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present to his girlfriend.
  • “A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
  • “When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
  • “I did not object to the object which he showed me.
  • “The insurance was invalid for the invalid in his hospital bed.
  • “There was a row among the oarsmen about who would row.
  • They were too close to the door to close it.
  • “The buck does many things when the does (females) are present.
  • “A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
  • “To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  • “The wind was too strong to wind the sail around the mast.
  • “Upon seeing the tear in her painting, she shed a tear.
  • “I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
  • “How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?”

Did you find this interesting? If so, you may like this IFOD on contronyms which are words that are spelled the same but have opposite meanings.

1 Comment

  1. Heteronyms present no major problem. English nouns can often be used as verbs, as your examples demonstrate. But word order in the language is so inflexible that you can tell which is intended once you know that quirk. In many ways English is an easy language compared to its Romance and Germanic cousins; not bad as a Lingua Franca. It’s a pity about the spelling.


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