Same spelling/pronunciation, opposite meanings (auto-antonym)

Discussion in 'All Languages' started by SuperXW, Oct 9, 2013.

  1. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    Do you have this kind of experience in any language?

    There are some word, phrase or sentence, accidentally have two nearly opposite explanations...
    Or, two words, phrases or sentences are accidentally identical or very similar in pronunciation or spelling...
    This forces us to "guess" the meaning according to the context.

    I know "a pun" has two meanings, but I'm looking for some extreme cases, that the two meanings are almost opposite.
    For example, in Chinese:
    治病 and 致病 both pronounce zhi4bing4. But one means "to cure a disease", the other means "to cause a disease". :eek:
    抱負 and 報復 both pronounce bao4fu4. But one means "great ambition", the other means "petty avenge".
    報仇 and 報酬 both pronounce bao4chou2. One means "revenge", the other means "reward". (Well, not exactly opposite, but still totally different.)
    So we must be very careful when using these words...

    There are also pun jokes making fun on sentences:
    There are two kinds of girls who cannot find a boyfriend: One: despise everyone; second, despised by everyone. (Can be expressed identically in Chinese.)
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2013
  2. bibax Senior Member

    There are plenty of such words in Latin.

    The Latin prefix in- (im-, il-, ir-) has two meaning:

    1) it is a verbal prefix that modifies the meaning of the verbs, cf. English to inscribe, to include, to imbibe, etc.

    2) it is a particle (so called privative) that negates the meaning of the words, cf. English inaccurate, immature, illegal, irrational, etc.


    infractus = 1) (< infringere) broken, fractured 2) (priv. in + frangere) not broken, unfractured;

    infrenatus = 1) (< infrenare) bridled, on a bridle 2) (priv. in + frenum bridle) without a bridle;

    instratus, intectus = 1) covered 2) uncovered;

    insuetus = 1) accustomed 2) unaccustomed;

    inauditus, inquisitus, intentatus, invocatus, etc.
  3. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    I remember once in another thread, the word "unisex" has confused us. :confused:
  4. ESustad Senior Member

    Washington, DC
    English - (Minnesota)
    "Flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing in English, even though the prefix "in-" often means "not."
  5. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    English - US
  6. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    Wow, I never knew there were researches and terminologies for this! Thanks!
  7. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    Interesting examples there.
    I'm curious about the origin of these pairs. Are the graphs/words indeed true homophones that have evolved into such over time, or do some of them occur from tone sandhi in this given context?

    Regarding other languages, if we are talking about two antonyms "accidentally" ending up as homophones (rather than a single word having antonymical meaning in different contexts), I believe those only truly occur in tonal languages.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2013
  8. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    They are not "true homophones" that have evolved into such overtime, however, they are not from "tone sandhi" either.
    The meanings of Chinese are attached to the characters (the "graphs"), not their pronunciations. Multiple characters may have a same pronunciation. (Usually, two different characters form up a "word". This narrow down the chance of "homophones".) And, the pronunciations change from time to time, from place to place, but the writings rarely changes.
    When I showed you their sounds, they were just the standard pronunciations set by the current government, based on Beijing dialect. This became standard Mandarin, the universal spoken language in China.
    In Mandarin, those words happen to pronounce exactly the same.
    But when writing them down, people would realize they were totally different.
    I also think those homophone words could be rare. But how about phrases or sentence? I suppose there would be some coincidences caused by pronunciations or grammar.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2013
  9. origumi Senior Member

    A Hebrew example - root q-l-s קלס. It means both to despise/denigrate and to laud/praise.

    The reason is historical: the former is native Hebrew, the latter was borrowed from Hellenistic Greek καλὸς (beautiful).
  10. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    In classical Arabic there are whole books of “words with opposite meanings“. The technical term is ʼaḍdād “opposites”.
  11. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    My point was that while, for instance in the case of your first example, both 治 and 病 are pronounced bing4 in these contexts (preceding 病, that is), there probably is or has been a context in which they were pronounced differently. As such, my question was whether the homophony has evolved over time through the initially distinct pronunciations of 治 and 病 merging, or if the pronunciations of these two are indeed still distinguishable when isolated/in another context.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2013
  12. ahmedcowon Senior Member

    That's true, but today many of these words are only used to refer to one of the two meanings.

    Here are some examples of ʼaḍdād:

    جلل means "great" and "worthless"
    باع means "sell" and "buy"
    شرى also means "sell" and "buy"
    مولى means "master" and "slave"
    طرب means "joy" and "sorrow"
    مأتم means "gathering at time of mourning" and "gathering at time of celebration"
    غريم means "lender" and "borrower"
    ظن means "certainty" and "uncertainty"
  13. sakvaka

    sakvaka Moderoitsija

    Finnish: (at least what I could come up with)

    - vähän can mean both "a little" (= some, a few) and "little" (= not much/many, few, hardly any)
    - vähän also means "quite, a lot, really" in some exclamations (Vähän siistii! How cool is that!)
    - lainata means both "lend sth to sb" and "borrow sth from sb". Lainaan kynän can mean both "I'm borrowing a pen (from someone)" and "I'm lending a pen (to someone)
    - Älä muuta sano! (Tell me about it!) literally means Don't say anything else!, but also the expression Sanos muuta! (Say something else!) can be used in that sense.
    - there are some dialect-related contronyms, tuima means "too salty" in western dialects but "little salty" in eastern dialects
  14. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    Chinese 眀 míng ‘bright’, 冥 míng ‘dark’ (same pronunciation, but different characters). In Vietnamese both are written minh.
  15. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    Wow, the same in Chinese! The verb 借 can mean both "lend" and "borrow". 我借了一支笔 can mean both "I borrowed a pen" or "I lent a pen"! When we were learning English, the teachers always asked us to exercise on distinguishing them. :D

    But most Chinese will misunderstand the expression "Tell me about it!" We will really start to talk. :D

    There are also many dialect-related contronyms. 窝心 means "feel wronged; grievance" in Mainland China, but "feel very considerate, caring" in Taiwan...

    I remember another one: 全部 "all" accidentally have the same pronunciation of 全部 "all-not", both "quan2bu4". Therefore, sometimes we say ta1men0 quan2bu4 chu1qu4, others could not be sure if it means "They all go out" or "They all don't go out"...

    Luckily, modern Chinese don't use 明/冥 independently to mean "bright/dark" anymore. If Vietnamese keep their pronunciations, it could be a trouble~
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 6, 2015
  16. Ghabi

    Ghabi Moderator

    Hong Kong
    Hi! We did talk a bit about this topic in this thread in the Chinese forum.
  17. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    I think that topic is a little bit different. That topic discusses OPPOSITE EXPRESSIONS with SAME MEANINGS, isn't it? ;) I'm now looking for SAME EXPRESSIONS with OPPOSITE MEANINGS.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2013
  18. origumi Senior Member

    Is there a any typical reason for this phenomenon in Arabic, or each word has its own story?
  19. ahmedcowon Senior Member

    In some Arabic dialects, negative imperative is formed by putting "ma" in front of the "jussive verb". But in Egyptian Arabic, this form gives the positive imperative.

    For Example: "ma teftaħ el-bab" means "Don't open the door" in some Arabic dialects but it means "Open the door" in the Egyptian dialect.
    There are two main reasons for this phenomenon:
    1- The two opposite meanings share the same root, so maybe one of the words formed can give the two opposite meanings.
    2- The word is used in an era to mean something but used in another era to mean the opposite.
  20. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    I agree.
    To tell the truth, most of the ʼaḍdād listed in the books I mentioned are mere pedantry. ظن ḍann actually just means “opinion”, so it can in principle be a ceartain opinion or an uncertain opinion.
  21. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    Mandarin 致病 zhi4 bing4 "to cause disease" < Middle Chinese *ȶì biaŋ < Old Chinese *tjed bʰiaŋ
    Mandarin 治病 zhi4 bing4 "to cure disease" < Middle Chinese *ɖi biaŋ < Old Chinese *dʰi̯əɡ bʰiaŋ
    They were not homophones initially. They gradually evolved into homophones over time. In modern Mandarin, 治 zhi4 "to cure" and 致 zhi4 "to cause" are pronounced zhi4 in all contexts, including in isolation. They are true homophones (heterographs).
  22. bibax Senior Member

    Similarly in Latin, the verbal prefix in- originates from the PIE *en- (cf. Greek en-, Slavic v- < *ven, Old English on-) and the privative prefix in- originates from PIE *ne- (cf. Greek a-/an-, Slavic ne-, English -un). Probably only in Latin the two prefixes gradually evolved into homophones over time. (The Old English on-, cf. onliehtan "to enlighten", seems to be extinct.)

    In Latin potentially all participles and adjectives derived from the verbs with the prefix in- can have opposite or nearly opposite meanings simultaneously.

    However not all verbs were used with the verbal prefix in-, and not all derived participles and adjectives were used with the privative in-. This fact significantly reduces the number of the possible auto-antonyms. For example: incredibilis means only incredible as the prefixed verb incredere is not attested.

    Also some instances are not pure auto-antonyms as many verbs with the prefix in- have (slightly or completely) different meaning than the corresponding unprefixed verbs. For example:

    scribere = to write, inscribere = to inscribe;
    inscriptus (< inscribere) = inscribed, inscriptus (priv. in- + scriptus < scribere) = unwritten;

    Still there are some pure auto-antonyms. For example both verbs mutare and immutare have the same meaning: to change; immutatus means changed (< immutare) or unchanged (priv. in- + mutatus < mutare). But immutabilis was always understood as immutable, changeable is mutabilis.
  23. sakvaka

    sakvaka Moderoitsija

    Another hit: Italian intiepidire, Finnish haalentaa, means either "warm up" or "cool down". See the corresponding WR entry.
  24. SuperXW

    SuperXW Senior Member

    So they were different in ancient times? Now they pronounce the same, what a shame~
    By the way, I really admire your knowledge on middle Chinese. Very few people knows these today.
  25. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    There are examples in English like "awesome" and "awful", "terrific" and "terrible".

    But what about the difference between "this car is shit" (bad car) and "this car is the shit" (amazing car), is this the same phenomenon?
  26. TitTornade

    TitTornade Senior Member

    In French :
    "louer" = to rent or to rent out
    "hôte" = host or guest
    "apprendre" = to teach or to learn
  27. Geo.

    Geo. Member

    West of So'ton, Hants
    UK English (SE England)
    In English:- raze vs raise

    raze = to destroy, (i.e. knock down, demolish) a building, or town, etc. E.g. ‘The house was razed to the ground in the fire last night’.

    With raze pronounced the same — in most dialects — as raise.

    raise: (amongst other definitions) to build, (i.e. erect, construct), etc. E.g. ‘A new house will be raised on the site of the old one’.

    With regard to government procedure:-

    In American English, to table (a discussion, proposal, bill, etc.) means to postpone, or even suspend it altogether, for the time being.

    In British & Commonwealth English, however, to table (the same business as above) means to address it now, without further delay.

    The word quite in certain contexts — can have a near opposite meaning in British English vs in American English.

    For instance, on a British survey:-
    How concerned are you about the Scottish Independence Referendum, scheduled for 18th September 2014, and its potential effect on the British economy?

    Please tick only one of the following that best describes your feelings regarding the matter:-

    1.) __ I am very concerned.

    2.) __ I am quite concerned.

    3.) __ I am not concerned.

    In American English, the choice between the first and the second option, may well seem to be no choice at all, the both meaning ‘extremely concerned’.

    In British English, however — in this context — the first means ‘I am extremely concerned’, whereas the second means ‘I am not extremely concerned’.

    This is because, in this case, ‘very’ is synonymous with ‘most (concerned)’, whilst here, ‘quite’ means ‘only moderately (concerned)’, i.e. ‘sort of (concerned)’.

    (It is only in the third option, that both American and British English mean ‘I am not concerned at all’).

    In British English the term Public School — (e.g. Eton College, Radley College, Winchester College, Harrow, et al.) — means what Americans would call a Private School; (the word ‘college’ meaning a secondary school in the UK). The use of the word ‘public’ — in this context, in British English — means to be educated in public, i.e. with others, as opposed to in private by a tutor.

    In American English, however, Public School means what in British English would be called a State-funded school, i.e. open to all. In this case, the American use of the word ‘public’ means open to the public at large, versus American ‘Private School’, meaning not part of publicly funded schools.

    In British English the word fanny refers to a woman's ‘pudenda’, whereas in American English, it refers to the ‘anus’, (of either gender). Whilst not exact opposites, a woman would be facing the opposite way.

    Thus, the American term fanny-pack — which in Britain is called a bum-bag — can certainly catch an Englishman off guard! (I was over here for years before I became familiar with much of American speech).
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 6, 2015
  28. Geo.

    Geo. Member

    West of So'ton, Hants
    UK English (SE England)
    In Italian, «Ciao» — a corruption of the Venetian «s-ciào Su» i.e. ‘I am your slave’ — can be used to mean both ‘Hello’ & ‘Good-bye’.
  29. Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    Cannot think about anything in Russian right now. In Ukrainian, however, some Old Russian prefixes merged, resulting in some peculiar cases.
    So, уносити (wnosyty) can mean both "to bring in"/"to carry into" (< O.R. vnositi) and "to take away"/"to carry away" (< O.R. unositi); pretty close to the opposite.
  30. Geo.

    Geo. Member

    West of So'ton, Hants
    UK English (SE England)
    In Austria (in particular), in much of southern Germany (especially Bavaria), and in many of the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire; variations (in their respective languages) of the Latin word Servus — to mean ‘I am your servant’ or ‘At your service’ — can be used as both ‘Hello’ & ‘Good-bye’, (just as Italian «Ciao» is used with its similar meaning, in the same way).

    The common variant forms of Latin Servus in the respective languages or dialects that use it are:- Slovak: Servus, Croatian: Servus or Serbus, Hungarian: Szervusz — (as well as several other forms in Magyar); Polish: Serwus, Austro-Bavarian: Servus, Romanian: Servus, Slovene: Serbus, Czech: Servus, Ukrainian: Сервус, and in Tyrolean & Italian (viz Alto Adige): Servas or Seavas.
    There is something similar in American vs British English with ‘to bring’ vs ‘to take’, though they actually mean the near opposite in most contexts. Yet in British English, one will, for instance, offer ‘to take something (to a picnic, a party, etc). Where in American English, one will generally offer “to bring” something (to the same). Hence American B.Y.O.B. i.e. “Bring your own bottle.”

    An example of the proper use in both British & American English might be:- ‘I feel rather ill; please, “take” the food away when you leave, and “bring” me back a glass of water when you return’.
    (No-one could interchange these two verbs, in the above, to render it as:- I feel rather ill; please, “bring” the food away when you leave, and “take” me back a glass of water when you return’).
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 6, 2015
  31. Geo.

    Geo. Member

    West of So'ton, Hants
    UK English (SE England)
    In most cases ‘high’, for instance ‘high mountains’, means ‘tall’, yet in some cases such as ‘high seas’, it meant ‘deep’, well into the 1900s. (To-day however, it is now used to mean ‘International Waters’.

    See Online Etymology Dictionary:-
    High seas first attested late 14c., with sense (also found in the Latin cognate) of "deep" as well as "tall" (cognates: Old English heahflod "deep water," also Old Persian baršan "height, depth").
    See The Law Dictionary:- Altum Mare (Latin)
    The high sea, or seas. The deep sea. Super altum mare, on the high seas.
    Last edited: May 26, 2014
  32. Messquito

    Messquito Senior Member

    台灣台北 Taipei, Taiwan
    Chinese - Taiwan 中文 Taiwanese Hokkien 臺語
    [Moderator's Note: Merged with a previous thread that deals with a similar topic]
    In Chinese, I've found one example, 買([maɪ̯3]=to buy) and 賣([maɪ̯4]=to sell), in this case, these antonyms are only different in tones, which can be a problem even for native speakers, let alone those who are learning Chinese.

    Edit: another example I found, 授([ʂoʊ̯4]=to give) and 受([ʂoʊ̯4]=to receive). There is absolutely no difference in quality of sound in these two characters, but the good news is, 授 is rarely used in modern Mandarin (only in idioms), and both of them usually appear with another collocated character, which makes it far less confusing. e.g. 男女授受不親 (a female and a male shall not give and receive intimately), 授 appears in words like 教授、講授、傳授, etc. and 受 appears in words like 接受、承受、受罰, etc.

    In Thai, I've found one example, too:
    ไกล ([klaj1]=to be far)
    ใกล้ ([klaj3]=to be near)
    They are only different in tones, too.

    In English, I've found a prefix example:

    So how does this happen in your language? Does it exist at all?
    Note: I'm talking about similar, not necessarily the same :)
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2015
  33. ilocas2 Senior Member

    In Czech slaný (= salty) and sladký (= sweet) are similar.
  34. frugnaglio Senior Member

    Italian: Similar thing, but with renting (like in English and French), not with lending: both noleggiare and affittare (used for different kinds of objects) mean “to rent” with the two meanings it has in English: to let (out), and to pay for the use of something rented.

    Alto means “high, tall” in the general sense of “having a great vertical dimension”, and hence also “deep”. Its opposite basso behaves the same way, meaning both “low” and “shallow”. So for example fondale basso (low seafloor) can mean both “shallow seafloor” and “deep seafloor”.

    English has “to sanction” meaning “to impose a penalty on something” or “to give official permission for something” :eek:
  35. 810senior

    810senior Senior Member

    Only to come up with few instances.

    In Japanese:
    煮詰まるnitsumaru : to get close to a conclusion vs to get stuck in problems. (strictly speaking the latter is the misuse of it but still used to a certain degree)
    やばいyabai : dangerous, hazardous vs marvelous, super, great (the latter is a somewhat colloquial, vulgar)
  36. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member


    «Ἄβιος» ắbiŏs (masc. & fem.) --> (1) with privative prefix «ἀ-» a- = without a living, starving (2) with copulative (intensive) «ἀ-» a- = wealthy («ἀ-» a- + masc. «βίος» bíŏs --> life, manner of life, mode of life < PIE *gʷeih₃w- to live cf Skt. जीव (jivah), life, Lat. vīvere).
    «Ἄβρομος» ắbrŏmŏs (masc. & fem.) --> (1) with privative «ἀ-» a- = noiseless (2) with copulative (intens.) «ἀ-» a- = noisy («ἀ-» a- + Classical v. (onomatopoeic) «βρέμω» brémō --> to roar, grumble).
    «Ἀπεσθίω» ăpĕstʰíō --> (1) to eat, gnaw off, (2) to leave off eating (prep. «ἀπό» ăpó --> far away, away from < PIE *h₂epo- from cf Skt. अप (apa), away, Hitt. āppa-, after, Lat. ab + Classical v. «ἔδω» édō, alt. «ἔσθω» éstʰō & «ἐσθίω» ĕstʰíō --> to eat < PIE *h₁ed- to eat cf Skt. अत्ति (atti), to eat, Hitt. edmi-, Proto-Slavic *ěsti > Russ. есть, Cz. jíst, Svk. jest, Bul. ям, BCS јести/jesti).
    «Αὐΐᾰχος» auíăkʰŏs (masc. & fem.) --> (1) with privative «ἀ-» a- = noiseless (2) with copulative (intens.) «ἀ-» a- = noisy («ἀ-» a- + Classical v. «ἰάχω» ĭắkʰō --> to cry aloud, shout, shriek, resound, roar < PIE *u(e)h₂gʰ- sound, noise, cry cf Lat. vāgīre, to wail).
    MoGr «λιπόσαρκος» [liˈposarkos] (masc.) --> (1) when the «λιπο-» [lipo-] part is the combinatory aphetic from «ἐλλιπο-» ĕllipŏ- of the Classical nominal «ἐλλῐπής» ĕllĭpḗs --> inadequate, deficient = skinny, scrawny (prefix & prep. «ἐν» ĕn --> in < PIE *h₁en- in cf Latin in, Proto-Germanic *in + zero-grade «λιπο-» lipŏ- of v. «λείπω» leípō --> to leave, depart < PIE *leikʷ- to leave behind cf Lat. linquere, Proto-Germanic *līhwaną > Ger. leihan + Classical 3rd declension fem. noun «σάρξ» sắrk͡s (nom. sing.), «σᾰρκός» sărkós (gen. fem.) --> flesh, piece of meat < PIE *turḱ- to cut cf Av. ϑβarəs- to cut, Ir. torc, boar); (2) when the «λιπο-» [lipo-] part is the combinatory aphetic from «ἐλλιπο-» ĕllipŏ- of the Classical nominal «ἔλλῐπος» éllĭpŏs --> greasy = overweight (prefix & prep. «ἐν» ĕn --> in + Classical neut. noun «λίπος» lípŏs --> fat < PIE *leip- to stick cf Skt. रेपस् (repas), stain, dirt + Classical 3rd declension fem. noun «σάρξ» sắrk͡s (see above)).
    MoGr «αποσκλήρυνση» [apoˈskliɾinsi] (fem.) --> (1) the calqued word from the Ger. Enthärtung = demineralization/softening of water (prep. «ἀπό» ăpó --> far away, away from (see above) + 3rd declension fem. noun «σκλήρυνσις» sklḗrŭnsis (fem.) --> hardening < Classical deponent v. «σκέλλομαι» skéllŏmai --> to dry up, parch, wither, languish, grow tired, harden < PIE *skelh₁- to dry up, wither cf Proto-Germanic *skala- thin, shallow > Eng. shallow); (2) the inherited word from ancient Greek = hardening up, mineralization
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2015
  37. ilocas2 Senior Member

    In English friend and fiend
  38. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member

    Not really relevant, as these are separate words with different etymologies (cf. Germ. Freund and Feind ["enemy"]). The same applies to Geo.'s example (#27) of "raze" (> Latin radere) and "raise" (> Gothic and Old Norse, raisjan or something of the kind).
  39. Encolpius

    Encolpius Senior Member

    words of direction: itt - ott (here-there), ide - oda, erre - arra...
    öröm (joy) - üröm (sorrow) - there are other word games I cannot remember now

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