Everyone knows that English spelling is a mess. Homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently, are a particular source of trouble. Many people struggle with homophones, but for the most part it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that these words sound alike.
There are several pairs of homophones in English, however, that started life as one word. These words look and sound alike because they have a common origin. Think of them like identical twins; one word split into two early on, and it can be difficult to tell them apart unless you know them really well, like passed with an -ed and past with a -t, or compliment with an i and complement with an e. These words are especially tricky because in many cases the meanings are still similar. So how did they get this way? Two reasons: polysemy and spelling variation.
Polysemy means the capacity for a word to have more than one meaning. Many words are polysemous; for example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary records 36 main senses for the verb set, including both transitive and intransitive uses. Polysemy is a natural feature of language and is not something to worry about, because context almost always tells us which sense is intended. But in the examples we’ll discuss, polysemy was a force for creating new words when it combined with spelling variation. In each case, one word with multiple meanings and multiple spellings split into two words with different spellings and meanings.
For most of the history of English, spelling was not standardized. Standardization started in the 1400s but continued through the 1800s. When there was no one right way to spell a word, variants abounded. Most words eventually settled on just one standard spelling. Others, though, settled on one spelling for one meaning and another spelling for another meaning. For example, discrete originally meant both “separate” and “prudent” and could be spelled either -eet or -ete. Eventually, though, we settled on the -eet spelling for “prudent” and the -ete spelling for “separate.”
Sometimes these variations arose from slight changes in pronunciation.
Sometimes variations arose from slight changes in pronunciation.
For example, the adverb too, meaning “also” or “excessively,” was originally just an adverbial use of the preposition to. By the late 1500s, it was written with a double o to show that it was always stressed, as opposed to the preposition to, which could sometimes be short and unstressed, as in “I hafta go to the store.” Similarly, then was originally just a variant pronunciation of than, which is a conjunction or preposition used to form comparatives, as in “He’s younger than me.” When used as an adverb meaning “at that time,” the word always has a reduced vowel, which came to be written as then. But than is also frequently pronounced the same way, creating constant confusion. The two spellings were used interchangeably until about 1700, when they were finally standardized.
In a few cases, the only difference is one of part of speech. Born meaning “brought forth by birth” is an adjective, while borne with an -e on the end is the past participle of the verb bear, meaning “to carry” or “to give birth to.” Passed with an -ed is the past tense form of the verb pass, and past with a -t is used for nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, as in “past tense” or “I walked past the school.”
Reborrowing could be a source of both polysemy and spelling variation. Sometimes a word was borrowed twice from a foreign language, usually French or Latin, at different times and with slightly different spellings and meanings. Complement with an e, meaning “something that completes,” was borrowed from Old French in the late 1300s. Compliment with an i, meaning “something nice that you say to someone,” was borrowed two hundred years later, but this time through French from Italian. But both words ultimately come from the Latin complere, meaning “to complete.” But the two were used interchangeably until their spellings were standardized in the 1600s.
P-a-l-l-e-t, meaning “a wooden platform for storing and moving packages,” and p-a-l-e-t-t-e, meaning “a board for holding and mixing paints,” both come from the French palette, meaning “small shovel” or “blade,” but they were also borrowed two hundred years apart with slightly different senses. (The oft-confused p-a-l-a-t-e, meaning the roof of your mouth, is also from French but is not connected to the other two.)
The Fruits of Standardization
Spelling standardization was a messy, unorganized process, and it left us some rather odd problems to deal with. There’s not necessarily a logical reason to keep all these variant spellings around, and it would certainly simplify things to just pick one spelling and stick with it, regardless of meaning. But until someone creates an Academy of English with real authority or finds some other way to enact spelling reform on a large scale, this is what we’re stuck with. Though variant spellings may have been accepted two or three centuries ago, we’re not so lucky today. If you want to master Standard English, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got these words down.
This article was written by Jonathon Owen, an editor and linguist who blogs at arrantpedantry.com.