So now what? Having carefully crafted my title, where next? My original thought (?) was to write about the words in the English language that sound alike but mean totally different things, because I sometimes find the confusion when speaking a source of good humor. However, things look a bit different when set on paper; here, hearing is possible only if you read aloud and close your eyes. So I think I will ramble.
Languages are wonderful. They are conglomerations of words brought in as a result of conquest, close neighborhood, delight at the way a word sounds in a different language, or because the word signifies something that the original language forgot about. My first acquaintance with the multitude of origins of words in any language was when someone said something about how Eskimos have distinguished more than a dozen different kinds of snow, whereas in my experience (at the time), snow was wet or dry if any distinction had to be made at all about snow. It was simply wonderful stuff that sometimes allowed me to not have to go to school. As time went on, and I did after all attend most classes at school, I discovered that by learning a language not one’s “own”, one could learn a very great deal about what a culture deems important. Snow is important to Eskimos so there are many words to describe the varying kinds with which Eskimos must contend. So, discovering what concepts or things about which a language has made deep distinctions tells me a bit about the culture (or at least the culture that was). But this is off track from my original intent in writing this, so onward.
Why not just say, “yes, I see”. This reads acceptably, and each word sounds differently, so there could be no confusion if the words were spoken rather than read. So okay, most of us would say “yes, I see” rather than “aye, I eye” if there was not a point to be made. I want an answer to the questions of why so many words that have quite different meanings sound exactly alike when spoken and why no one has tried to make the whole thing simpler and less confusing.
Perhaps the answer is simple: it is just plain fun. And it is, actually, just plain fun to spend a moment or two figuring out just what has just been said, or asking the speaker to “write it down please so I can understand your meaning”. Slows down the conversation, but as everyone states what he and she thought the speaker said, things might get happy. Not a bad thing, really. But, more likely, we have these alike-sounding words (and I am quite sure there is a word for them out there somewhere) because they were added to our vocabulary by people who used the words in a different language or in some other manner. I enjoy the word-a-day emails I get from the dictionary people that explain how to pronounce the word (extremely important if you learned words from reading rather than speaking–how my students laughed when I spoke of the car named Infiniti and pronounced it in-fin-eet-ee). The email also includes how the word is used in sample sentences and, what I wait for, where the word originated and how it has changed over time.
What to conclude from this overlong ramble? Words are wonderful, and at times are the source of an “ai, ai ai!” response.