Heterography and homography

In linguistics, heterography is a property of a written language, such that it lacks a 1-to-1 correspondence between the written symbols and the sounds of the spoken language.[1] Its opposite is homography, which is the property of a language such that written symbols of its written form and the sounds of its spoken form have a 1-to-1 correspondence.[2]

The orthography of the English language is, according to Larry Trask, a "spectacular example" of heterography. But most European languages exhibit it to some extent. Finnish is "very close" to being a systematically homographic language.[1][2] A phonemic transcription (such as a transcription of phonemes that uses the International Phonetic Alphabet, for example) is, by its nature, homographic, also.[2]

The degree of heterography of a language is a factor in how difficult it is for person to learn to read that language, with highly heterographic orthographies being more difficult to learn than more homographic ones. Many people have espoused the point of view that the extreme heterographic nature of English is a disadvantage in several respects. These include, for example, Dr. Kiyoshi Makita writing in the July 1968 issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, who attributes the rarity of dyslexia amongst Japanese children to the fact that Japanese is a highly homographic language.[3][4]


Key to terminology
Written forms
same different
Sounds same Homophonic homographs Homophonic heterographs
different Heterophonic homographs Heterophonic heterographs

Confusion between heterographic homophonic words (homophonic heterographs or heterographic homophones) such as "piece" and "peace" is one of the symptoms of surface dyslexia, a form of dyslexia causing error when a word's spelling is not perceived to be in accord with pronunciation rules.[5]

Other homophonic heterographs in English include:

In French, examples include "sain" and "saint".[7]

Heterographs are especially problematic for written communication, in that spelling errors (e.g., in a word-processed or emailed document) due to the typist choosing the wrong member of a heterograph set will persist into the final document, even after spell-checking. This is because heterographs cannot be caught by a simple spell checker, which only inspects the word itself (i.e., which is correct in some contexts) and not the context it is in (which may indicate the need for a different spelling).

Heterophonic homographs (also known as homographic heterophones) are, in contrast, words whose spoken sounds differ but whose written forms are the same. English has a few hundred heterophonic homographs,[8] examples of these latter include "lead" ("lead by example" vs "lead poisoning") and "read" ("will read" vs "has read").[6][8]

The two aforementioned classes of words, along with a third class (homophonic homographswords with different meanings whose written and spoken forms are both the same, such as "bank" in English and "杜鹃" in Chinese) are the three classes of lexical ambiguities in all languages (marked in green in the key on the right).[9] "Heterophonic heterographs" (marked in brown) are words spelled differently and pronounced differently, consisting of all words outside of the other three classes.

In other languages


Chinese has many words that are both homophonic and homotonic. Distinctions are made between such words using heterography.[10] Homophonic heterographs are very frequent in Chinese, whereas heterophonic homographs are not.[9] In contrast, homographic heterophony is one of the most salient characteristics of English orthography, with the "-ough" in "though", "tough", "through", "thought", "bough", "cough", and "dough" being homographic but greatly heterophonic.[11]


Although written French includes a limited number of heterophonous homographs – for example, est (/ɛ/, "is") v. est (/ɛst/, "east") and fils (/fis/, "son") v. fils (/fil/, "threads") – the language is characterized to a much greater degree by the not infrequent occurrence of homophonous heterographs – for example, vert ("green"), vers ("towards"), verre ("glass"), ver ("worm"), vair ("a type of fur"), all pronounced /vɛʁ/.

There is thus a strong correlation in French between spelling and pronunciation – but it is one which operates reliably only in the direction shown in the examples given above. From the spelling of an unknown word one can in almost every case know, or very reliably guess at, its correct pronunciation, but the spelling of a previously unknown word is not at all easily deducible from knowing only its pronunciation.

English, by contrast, exhibits a weak correspondence between spelling and pronunciation in both directions, making it a much more heterographic language than French.

See also


  1. Robert Lawrence Trask (1996). "heterography". A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge. p. 170. ISBN 9780415112611.
  2. Robert Lawrence Trask (1996). "homography". A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge. p. 172. ISBN 9780415112611.
  3. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1968.tb02428.x
  4. Vijay Pratap Singh (2004). "The Poor Speller and Reader". Concept and Methods of Special Education. Sarup & Sons. p. 261. ISBN 81-7625-450-9.
  5. J. Carolina Iribarren (2007). "Description and Detection of Acquired Dyslexia and Disgraphia in Spanish". In José G. Centeno; Raquel Teresa Anderson; Loraine K. Obler (eds.). Communication Disorders in Spanish Speakers. Multilingual Matters. p. 235. ISBN 9781853599712.
  6. Rhona Stainthorp & Diana Hughes (1999). Learning from Children who Read at an Early Age. Taylor & Francis. p. 9. ISBN 9780415174954.
  7. Jean-Pierre Jaffré and Michel Fayol (2006). "Orthography and literacy in French". In R. Malatesha Joshi; P. G. Aaron (eds.). Handbook of Orthography and Literacy. Routledge. p. 85. ISBN 9780805854671.
  8. John Higgins. "Homographs". Retrieved 2009-12-01.
  9. Ping Li (2006). The handbook of East Asian psycholinguistics. Cambridge University Press. p. 273. ISBN 9780521833332.
  10. Po-ching Yip (2000). The Chinese Lexicon. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 9780415151740.
  11. Jean-Pierre Changeux & Jean Chavaillon (1995). Origins of the Human Brain. Oxford University Press. p. 225. ISBN 9780198523901.

Further reading

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