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Word Play - Breaking all the rules

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WORLD Radio - Word Play - Breaking all the rules

English is a notoriously difficult language to learn


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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, September 17th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler.

Over the summer we heard from several listeners wondering when Listening In would return. Well, I am happy to announce that Warren Smith is back with an all new season of interviews. Last week he talked to theologian and author Os Guinness. This week, he talks to Robert Wolgemuth. In the coming weeks you can listen in on his conversations with Owen Strachan, Caleb Kaltenback, Claire Culwell, and WORLD’s very own Marvin Olasky.

BROWN: And those are just a few of the guests Warren has lined up for this season. Trust me, you won’t want to miss an episode. We release a new one every Friday. Search for Listening In wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe.

BUTLER: Alright, well moving now from listening to speaking. Communicating in a foreign language is hard—especially if that language is English.

BROWN: Right, and not just because you say tomato and I say tomato.

Here’s George Grant with this month’s Word Play.

GEORGE GRANT: Though it is spoken the world over, English is a notoriously difficult language to learn. It is filled with peculiarities, irregularities, oddities, and inconsistencies. Though there certainly are rules for spelling, grammar, and pronunciation, the language is rife with exceptions to those rules.

If that weren’t complicated enough, the English language features innumerable homophones: words that sound the same but have different meanings. For instance, there are homographs: words that sound and are spelled the same but have different meanings. There are heterographs: words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. There are multinyms: words that sound the same but have more than two different meanings and spellings.

Confusing, right?

And then, there are also heteronyms: words that have the same spelling but with different pronunciations and different meanings. So for example, address is speaking before an audience while address is a location on a map. To advocate is to make the case for another while an advocate is the supporter of a cause. An attribute is a characteristic while to attribute is an acknowledgement of credit or ownership. Appropriate is something suitable or apt while to appropriate is to set apart. August is something that inspires awe while August is the eighth month of the year.

A bass is a fish; but a bass is a low-pitched instrument. To be blessed is to know divine favor; but blessed is that estate of graciousness. A bow is ribbon on a present or clipped into hair; but a bow is a gesture of respect or alternatively, it could be the front of a ship. A buffet is a self-serve meal or the sideboard upon which that meal is served; but to buffet is to batter and strike repeatedly.

To close is to shut; close is nearby. To combine is to mix and assimilate; a combine is a threshing and harvesting machine. To compact is to compress; compact is something that is small. To convict is to find guilty; a convict is someone who has been so convicted.

To desert is to abandon; a desert is an arid wasteland. To do is to act; but do is the note that precedes re and follows te. Does is an action verb; does are two or more female deer. A dove is a bird; dove is the past tense of dive.

These are just a few of the A, B, C, and D heteronyms. But, you’ll find more across the whole span of the dictionary: entrance and entrance, intimate and intimate, learned and learned, lima and Lima, object and object, present and present, record and record, separate and separate, tear and tear, wind and wind. Heteronyms abound.

Virgil, the first century Roman poet laureate once quipped, “Trust not too much to appearances.” Perhaps that is apt wisdom for both life and language—especially our surprisingly rich, maddeningly unpredictable language.

I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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