Does English have unusually many or few homophones?

Which languages tend to have the most homophones and which have the fewest?

  • 3
    This is an interesting question, but it's going to be hard to decide whether words are homophones or multiple meanings of the same word in a consistent way across languages.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 20:02
  • It's also gonna be hard to decide whether words that have identical phonologies but different tones are homophones or not. Mandarin comes to mind, but there are plenty of others.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 20:20
  • 1
    @jlawler I would not want those to be considered homophones. Even then, Mandarin still has exceptionally many (afaik)
    – minseong
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 22:26
  • @Draconis good point, I had never thought of that before, even in English. I'm interested in any entry-level resources or compilations on the topic
    – minseong
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 22:27
  • 1
    Mandarin is indeed a language with a very large number of homophones. It has a combination of features that makes for particularly fertile homophone soil: quite restrictive phonotactics (no consonant clusters, only /n m ŋ/ [and very limited /r/] in coda position), a relatively small phoneme inventory, largely monosyllabic root words (a large number of words by usage are polysyllabic, but most are compounds whose individual components are also valid, if less common, words on their own), and a limited number of tones (four, with a marginal fifth, neutral tone). Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 0:04

1 Answer 1


Languages with the shortest words, fewest segment, and strictest sequencing restrictions will have the most homophones; those with the longest words, most segments and loosest sequencing restrictions will have the fewest homophones. But also unwritten languages will have fewer homophones, because "different spelling" is one basis for deeming two forms to be homophones. We should probable exclude cross-dialectal "homophones" like "initiate" and "and then she ate" or sloppy ~ fast speech homophones ("the sky / this guy").

Plus, we need a semantic theory to go with this, in order to determine if "true" in the carpentry sense, "true" as in "accurate" and "true" as in the Correspondence theory of truth are one word or three. A "snake" used in plumbing clearly refers to a different thing from a "snake" as found in the garden, neither of which is an arcade game. I suggest that the definition of "different word" should be broad so that English doesn't automatically win the contest owing to the fact that part-of-speech boundaries in English are hyper-fluid.

  • 1
    ‘Different spelling’ isn’t a basis for determining homophones, though. Homophony is, as the word implies, exclusively sound-based. A set of homophones are homophonous regardless of whether they’re heterographs or homographs. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 10:45
  • You might want to consult en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homophone on that point.
    – user6726
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 14:26
  • 1
    I did. It agrees with me, both in the opening statement (“a word that is pronounced the same (to varying extent) as another word but differs in meaning. A homophone may also differ in spelling”) and in the very useful diagram on the right, which shows that homophones (same pronunciation, different meaning) can be subdivided into heterographs (different spelling) and homonyms (same spelling, a subset of homographs). Spelling is used to differentiate heterographs from homographs, but that distinction is orthogonal to homophony, which is based on sound. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 20:22
  • @user6726 those are wonderful examples you've provided. Looks like when we'll start stretching definition of a homophone, we naturally arriving at rhymes. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 12:33

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