Are there any words that started off different, merged in pronunciation and spelling at some point and then separated again?

  • E.g. Two hypothetical words in Old English OX and OY are neither homophones nor homonyms
  • In Middle English MX and MY are homophones and homonyms
  • In Modern English EX and EY are neither homophones nor homonyms

The words don't have to be in the English family, I'm interested if this has happened in any language.

  • Do you specifically require that there was a spelling merger, or is it sufficient that there be no spelling in the language so that orthography provides no evidence of a distinction?
    – user6726
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 16:20
  • If a language was not traditionally written or if there was no standard spelling causing the pair to be indistinguishable then pronunciation would be sufficient. I'm looking for words with different meanings that become indistinguishable except by context that later separated. E.g. through/threw would not qualify in Modern English as the middle pair because our spelling (of those two words anyway!) is now consistent.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 1:30
  • I couldn't figure it out from a quick glance, but relative and related--or not so much related, at any rate not unrelated--words might yield an example, if you count diversion into different languages from Latin "latus" and its roots, if its really from different roots.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 6:25

3 Answers 3


It's not quite possible naturally, as it contradicts the law of the regularity of phonetical shifts. However, it can happen, if grammarians are at play. As far as I remember, in most French dialects, the final -ir in verbs was once used to be pronounced without -r (just like -er); that is, for example, sortir "to exit" and sorti "exited (part.)" would be homophones (there weren't homophones in Latin). However, later, grammarians prescribed to restore the final -r for infinitive.

  • 1
    I would leave out "the law of the regularity of phonetical shifts". This "law" exists only in the minds of the Neo-Grammarian school at the end of the 19th century, now generally discredited.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 18:38
  • 1
    Sorry but what? The whole historical linguistics is based on this axiom. Sure there can be random little statistical fluctuations, but still the law generally is correct. Sounds don't randomly change into random sounds, there's an observable uniformity.
    – carsten
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 18:41
  • Changed "it's not possible" to "it's not quite possible".
    – carsten
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 18:46
  • 1
    It's just the mechanics of it. What matters is the final result. As for lexical diffusion, didn't it come across their head that all those strange exceptions could simply be dialectal interferences? Especially considering that the theory is mostly popularized by Americans (myriads of dialects, very recent migration by non-natives, stratification). Say, for Russian, I can't remember examples where a phonetical shift would not be uniform across all words, there are no cases like English blood vs. food. Russian language is notorious for being pretty uniform dialect-wise.
    – carsten
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 19:14
  • 1
    By the way, there are cases like "vrata"/"vorota" but it's universally accepted that the former type words are simply loanwords from Old Chuch Slavonic (with tracable evidence); as Old Russian had diglossia (Old Church Slavonic words are almost always high-register, as it was used by priests). Exactly what I call by "dialectal interference", no need to invent word-by-word phonetical changes for things like vrata/vorota (woo-woo, lexical diffusion)
    – carsten
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 19:21

I have finally found an example meeting the rather strong criteria of the question:

mine In older stages of English, mine was a form of my to be used when the following word starts with a vowel (similar to the situation of a/an in modern English). It has now developed to my. It has (at least) two homophones and homographs, the word mine in phrases like "this is mine" and the word mine related to mining.

The example is mine in a phrase like mine apple in earlier stages of English that is nowadays my apple.

  • 1
    This is an example of two word forms having merged to one, but not separated again. Unless you claim that mine in the phrase "this is mine" is still the same word and not another homophone/homograph.
    – J-mster
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 10:25

If they are complete homonyms/homophones a split through a sound change would be next to impossible, because sound changes occur regularly. But I have an idea, how it could still happen.

If one of the words were for example a function word it might have weaker stress, resulting in a reduction of the vowel to schwa or the reduction of a consonant cluster to a single consonant.
Another thing that could split the homonyms would be analogy – a different word form could influence one of the homonyms. (This wouldn't be a sound change)

  • Of course the sound would shift and what would you call that more appropriately than a sound shift, as if this, for lack of a better word, irregular process was somehow less important?
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 6:18
  • @vectory, I disagree. In cases of analogy, a word form, a word stem or an ending gets substituted with a different one. No sound change is involved there. Let's for example take des herzen > des herzens (in analogy to strong nouns) that is not a sound change. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 10:45
  • I thought you had meant something like, hypothetically, also > als, not all + so > also neither all + -s. Would you call, again hypothetically, also (further, besides) derived from a cross of alt- (as in alter ego, ultima or altus) X all + so a sound shift of e.g. some vulgar *alto? I can't remember an example, but I have seen "under the influence of ..." in etymologies.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:17

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