HOMOPHONOUS, HOMONYMOUS and POLYSEMIC words in Italian: don’t mix them up!

There are many words in Italian that seem (apparently) completely identical, but actually have slightly or cmpletely different meanings. In this lesson I will try to explain them to you once and for all, so that you won’t mix them up ever again.

Homophony, Homonymy and Polysemy in Italian: differences

To start things off, it’s important to quickly talk about a few concepts that will help us better understand the difference between the different kinds of words we will talk about in the video. Two words are called OMOGRAPHIC when they are written in the same way. Two words are called OMOPHONOUS when they are pronounced the same way. In Italian almost all the omophonous words, meaning read in the same way, are also omographic, meaning written in the same way.


There are very few exceptions to this rule, and this happens because the graphic system of the Italian alphabet is of the phonetic kind, meaning that there are very few cases in which the pronunciation is different from how a word is written. This difference mainly happens when the letter H is involved, since in Italian it is written but not pronounced: that’s the case with the words…

ANNO (noun) → YEAR vs. HANNO (verb) → THEY HAVE

AI (articulated preposition) → TO THE vs. HAI (verb) → YOU HAVE

CIECO (adj.) → BLIND vs. CECO (adj.) → CZECH

DÌ (noun) → DAYTIME vs. DI (preposition) → OF vs. DI’ (verb, imperative) → SAY

DÀ (verb, indicative) → HE/SHE/IT GIVES vs. DA (preposition) → FROM


Other than these few exceptions, however, Italian has a few COMPLETE HOMONYMS, meaning words that are both homographics and homophonous, and thus completely identical, but with very different meanings that have nothing to do with each other. For example:

SALE (noun, the mineral) → SALT vs. SALE (verb, present indicative) → HE/SHE/IT GOES UP

FACCIA (verb, present subjunctive) → MAY HE/SHE/IT DO vs. FACCIA (noun) → FACE

PARTE (verb, present indicative) → HE/SHE/IT LEAVES vs. PARTE (noun, each of the fractions in which something is divided) → PART

CREDENZA (noun “opinion”) → BELIEF vs. CREDENZA (noun, a type of furniture) → CUPBOARD

FINE (noun, “objective”) → PURPOSE vs. FINE (adj, “subtle, refined”) → ELEGANT

RISO (noun, the act of laughing)→ LAUGHTER vs. RISO (noun, the cereal or the plant) → RICE

BORSA (noun, a container or a pouch) → BAG vs. BORSA (noun, the place where you bargain for shares and stocks) → STOCK MARKET

MIGLIO (noun, unit of measurement) → MILE vs. MIGLIO (noun, the cereal) → MILLET

COSTA (noun, geographical element) → COAST vs. COSTA (verb) → TO COST

DAI (articulated preposition) → FROM THE vs. DAI (present indicative, verb) → YOU GIVE

SALUTARE (adj, “good for your health”) → HEALTHY vs. SALUTARE (infinitive, verb) → TO GREET

And so on.


But there’s still another group of words we have to talk about, and that is POLYSEMIC words. Literally, “with many meanings”: we are talking about a same word that can take on several different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. The difference compared to the complete homonyms is that in this case the word is always the same, and has a single common origin, while complete homonyms are different words, with different origins and that have nothing to do with each other.

For example, the word BATTERIA can take on different meanings depending on the context, and is thus a polysemic word. Lat’s see if you can guess its meaning by looking at the context in these sentences:

  1. In TV stanno pubblicizzando una nuova batteria di pentole. → They are advertising a new set of pots on TV.
  2. Mio cugino suona la batteria in una band. → My cousin plays the drum in a band
  3. Il mio telefono ha la batteria. → My phone’s battery is dead.

Other polysemic words are:

ALA, which could refer to the WING of a BIRD or the WING of a PLANE;

RETE (NET), that could refer to a bundle of threads, or a TV program or again internet;

DADO, that could refer to a gaming die or to stock broth;

PIANO, that could refer to the musical instrument, or to the FLOOR of a building, or again a STRATEGY or a PROJECT;

TEMPO, that could refer to the CHRONOLOGICAL time or to the WEATHER;

CAMPO, that could refer to the FIELD where you play a sport, a planted PIECE OF LAND, or the RECEPTION of a telephon line;

INTEGRALE, an adjective that means both “COMPLETE” and “UNREFINED”, when talking about food (WHOLEFOOD), but also to the mathematical INTEGRAL;

LIRA, that could refer to both the musical instrument (LYRE) and the coin used in Italy before the euro;

RADICE (ROOT), that could refer to both the ROOTS of a PLANT in the ground, and the MATHEMATICAL ROOTS;

SQUADRA, that is both a group of people (TEAM) playing or working together, and the TRIANGULAR tool for technical drawing;

VERSO, that is both the LINE of a poem, and a DIRECTION;

APPUNTO, that is both a NOTE, something we write so we won’t forget, and a common adverb (PRECISELY; INDEED) in Italian.

In short, if  during a podcast, a movie or a conversation, you hear a word that seems, apprently, out of context, most likely it’s just a word that has another meaning you weren’t aware of and didn’t know yet.

So knowing homonyms and polysemic words is very important in order to distinguish the meanings of the words. What about you? Do you know other polysemic words of homonyms? Are there similar words in your language? Write it down in the comments below!

And if you want to learn other words similar to each other, but that are differentiated by the position of the accent or wether the vowels are open or not, don’t miss the video-lesson about the accent in Italian!

Let’s see if you’ve mastered the contents of this class. Have a go at completing the exercises!

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