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In Latin there are many words that are ambiguous when written, but unambiguous when spoken. For example, palus with a long A and short U means a stake. But palus with a short A and long U means a swamp.

Are there any English words that are like this?

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  • That's because Latin didn't represent long vowels differently from short vowels. English spelling doesn't even represent vowels; there are 15 or so in English, but only 5 vowel letters in our alphabet. There were only 5 in Latin, but they could be either long or short, and the Romans could tell.
    – jlawler
    Mar 25 at 1:39
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    @jlawler the Romans actually did generally represent long vowels, and clearly considered it more than a mere ornament because they even used it in handwritten cursive letters and notes not just monumental inscriptions. They used apices, similar to the modern acute accent (or by lengthening an i, the so-called i-longa). These are often overlooked because the apex is usually carved much thinner than the main body of the letter and so in monumental inscriptions is easily worn away or written-off as damage. More info here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apex_(diacritic)
    – Tristan
    Mar 25 at 9:50

2 Answers 2

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Words that are spelled the same but that have different pronunciations and meanings are called heteronyms. English has many, such as bass (low in pitch, or a fish), desert (to abandon, or an arid locale), or object (to protest, or a thing).

See heteronyms at Wikipedia for many more examples.

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  • Ah ha, there is the key terminology. Mar 24 at 20:05
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Sure. Consider "lead" (verb, bring someone along) /lid/ vs "lead" (noun, a type of metal) /lɛd/.

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