The Loom of Language

21 min readMar 19, 2021

English is a difficult language. It can be understood through tough thorough thought though. Anonymous meme

施氏食獅史 (Shī shì shí shī shǐ) or ‘Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den’
Y.R. Chao, circa 1935

‘… discovering new reflex slants and ducts and cross-links that open inherent potentials previously unworked.’ Poetic Thought, J.H. Prynne

For our current purposes, words can be thought of as having three dimensions: sign/spelling, sound/pronunciation, and meaning. Each of these three dimensions can be either the same or different, leading to a “2x2x2” matrix. This is a survey of the resulting matrix of homographs, homophones and synonyms across several languages. (1)

The sign dimension is the written form(s) of a word. In English it is the letters used to spell a word. In Chinese it is the characters. In Arabic, it is the script, including or excluding the ‘harike’ short vowels. The main thing for our purpose is that the sign is considered separately from both the sound the speaker makes, and the meaning, giving us the three dimensions.

The eight resulting combinations (three dimensions each with two states, as in the cube below) include two combinations in which words are the same in all three of these dimensions, or different in all three dimensions, which are on the whole less interesting and trivial cases. This leaves six more interesting cases which play out differently in various languages, telling a particular story in each instance. It is this story which we will explore here across seven languages: English, Ju|hoansi, Khoekhoegowab, Danish, Mandarin Chinese, Bisayan and Bulgarian. (Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit and Kannada were added as an annexure in June 2022.)

All 8 combinations of identities and differences in sound, sign and meaning represented on a 2x2x2 cubic structure

For example, linguistic punning is common in Chinese culture where, for instance, 149 different characters have the yì sound, each one with the possibility of multiple meanings of the same sign. Conversely, in languages where sounds consistently match letters one to one so that what-you-write-is-what-you-hear, there are different possibilities for word play. If a community of speakers is relatively very small, sometimes numbering only a few in a tightly knit community, variations like those found in all three dimensions across larger speech communities (e.g. Chinese and English with billions of speakers) will also be limited. In Arabic and languages where short vowels (harike) can be left in or out when written, omitting them gives many more possibilities for the remaining characters to carry different sounds and meanings. (2)

In three of the six non-trivial categories in this game, words share the same pronunciation. These are known as homophones. In identifying different pronunciations, we don’t consider the speech idiosyncrasies and disorders of individuals, but common pronunciation of different regional and social groups gives varieties which we have included.

In three of the six categories, words share the same meaning. These are synonyms. Again, in identifying different meaning, we consider only recognised standard meanings, not personal or aberrant meanings.

In three, words share the same sign, and are known as homographs. Nonconformist spelling/signs are disregarded in identifying differences.

Let’s first illustrate the game more fully using English, taking a closer look at each category in turn, before turning to a few other languages.



Identities and differences in sound, sign and meaning, with examples from standard British English

Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

Words in this category include polysemes, whose meaning is extended by metonymy. In English, examples are: crane (noun, verb), book (noun, verb). (3)

Also in this category are auto-antonyms, which have the same pronunciation and sign but opposite meaning. Cleave is an interesting example, since it is also a ‘true homonym’ – i.e. a pair of distinct words sharing pronunciation and sign, with different etymology: cleave as ‘separate’ is from Old English clēofan, while cleave as ‘adhere’ is from Old English clifian. Other examples of auto-antonyms are: clip (to attach or cut off), screen (to show or conceal).

General examples in this category, neither extensions by metonymy nor auto-antonyms are: skate (a type of fish, to glide), stalk (of a flower, to follow). (4)

Same sound, Different sign, Same meaning

English has spelling variations across different standard versions of the language: for example UK/US standard spellings of colour/color, grey/gray, axe/ ax, amoeba/ ameba, anaemic/ anemic, -ise/ -ize endings, -re/ -er endings.

In Spelling Variants in British English (1986), Sidney Greenbaum estimates that about 4% of spelling variants occur within standard British English. Within this same standard version, differences are often found with loanwords, including learned and technical vocabulary borrowed from Latin and Greek, and reflect different ways of adapting the borrowed word to English: absinthe/ absinth. Other examples can be found in archaic words, arguably no longer in common current usage: ought/ aught (meaning zero, nothing), aye/ ay (signifying assent). Some are current but varying in relative frequency over time: abetter/ abettor (one who assists a crime), avertible/ avertable. Others are found in less formal registers: aunty/ auntie. Greenbaum concludes: ‘There is probably greater uniformity in spelling than in any other aspect of the English language [yet] the spelling of standard English is by no means almost invariant.’ (5)

Different sound, Same sign, Same meaning

Just as regional variations are found in English spelling, there are variations in standard pronunciation too: either (UK, US), tomato (UK, US), straw (UK, US), about (Canadian, UK/US). (6)

One example of different pronunciation of a word with the same spelling and meaning which is found within British English is the word ‘the’ which is pronounced with a short vowel before consonants, and a long ‘ee’ before vowels (e.g. pronounced with a short ‘the’ for mouse, but a long ‘thee’ for elephant).

Same sound, Different sign, Different meaning

Heterographs share only pronunciation, and differ in sign and meaning: two/ too/ to, sow/ sew, meet/ meat, sure/ shore, beer/ bier. Capitonyms which share pronunciation are a special case differing only in the capitalisation of the word: (the month of) March/ march (or walk in step). (7)

Different sound, Same sign, Different meaning

Heteronyms share only the written sign, and differ in both pronunciation and meaning: lead (noun, verb), wind (to coil, air movement), row (a line, to fight), minute (a duration, tiny), close (to shut, near), desert (arid region, to leave). (8)

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

Loan words, regional variations, and differences in vocabulary between scientific/formal and informal registers, give rise to different words referring to exactly the same referent (e.g. the plant Verbascum is also widely known as mullein, and many other folk names). (9)

Modern English is rich in synonyms, due to it being derived from Germanic, Latinate and many other elements over its long history, which has multiplied available words for the same thing. To the more sensitive writer/reader and speaker/listener, English words with Germanic or Latinate derivation (bloom/flower, begin/commence) may give rise to nuanced layers of meaning, as may synonyms of shared Germanic stock (begin, start), as a result of secondary homophonic or homographic associations and similarities. In fact, all synonyms may be carriers of ‘sense-bearing differences’ which ‘allow and invite the vibrations of sense and suggestions.’ (Prynne, J.H., Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, 1993). Any significant difference in meaning would preclude inclusion in this category.

Tautological compounding is found in English (and as we shall see in Chinese), in words such as courtyard and compounds such as subject matter, where the components (in these cases from different etymological sources) are synonymous with the compound.

Different sound, Different sign, Different meaning

Having said that this category is a mostly trivial case of words with differences in all three dimensions (10), it is significant in that it does comprise all words not sharing the same sound, sign or meaning – i.e. the rest of the language.

One subset which deserves mention is where one or two of the dimensions are similar, which is not a distinction generally made in this game which classifies only as the same or different. Examples include capitonyms where a capitalisation changes both pronunciation and meaning (reading/ Reading, polish/ Polish), and synophones (similar pronunciation, different sign, different meaning) including malapropisms such as the comedian Ronnie Barker’s ‘pismronunciation.’ (11)



Ju|hoansi, a ǃKung language in the Kxʼa language family, is spoken in Namibia and Botswana by a few thousand members of the San tribe. The language has only been written since the 1960s, using orthographies developed by linguists from outside the San community which extend the Latin alphabet specifically so that the written forms of words are based on the verbal forms. In theory at least, sound/ pronunciation always follows spelling, apparently leaving only two of the original six categories as a possibility.

My source is a literate and multilingual speaker of Ju|hoansi, Afrikaans and English, who consulted with his fellows in the San Living Museum near the AiAiba Lodge in Namibia, and wrote the words down for me himself.

Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

Between them, the community could easily suggest several examples of homonyms where one word serves different purposes:

  • Shaa means ‘bush potato’ and ‘rest’
  • Kan’jah means ‘thanks’ and ‘hello’
  • N|uu (spelt gǃú on wikipedia, which I consulted afterwards) means ‘water’ and ‘stomach’ (according to my source)

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

In the short time available, and after much discussion, they were unable to identify a synonym where two different words mean the same thing. However, wikipedia (consulted afterwards) gives both gǃú and dohmsoan for water.

With more time, we may well have identified more, and even found some examples of words where the pronunciation doesn’t exactly follow spelling, or clarified if variant spellings are possible (such as N|uu and gǃú for water).



My source’s mother tongue is known as Damara or Nama, formally also known as Khoekhoegowab, a member of the Khoe language group, an important non-Bantu language group in Southern Africa. She is a literate and multilingual speaker of both English and Damara.

The language has four clicks, written with special characters alongside the Latin alphabet: ǀ for a dental click; ǁ for a lateral click; ǃ for an alveolar click; ǂ for a palatal click. There have been several orthographies for this locally important language which is used in education to university level, including a modern standard version. Sound/ pronunciation usually follows spelling, but my source did manage to identify one heteronym, suggesting there are probably more examples where pronunciation doesn’t follow spelling.

Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

  • ǂgae means ‘smoke’ (i.e. to smoke a cigarette) and ‘pull’ (i.e. to pull an object), perhaps suggesting a metonymical relationship (e.g. as in English, to pull on a cigarette)
  • ǀgam means ‘hot’ and ‘two’ with no obvious connection between the two meanings
  • tsî means ‘and’ and ‘sneeze’

Different sound, Same sign, Different meaning

  • khao means ‘dig’ when the h is sounded in speech, and ‘behind’ when the h is silent in speech, though still written

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

  • ǀnōba and !û both mean ‘going by walking’

My source was unable to identify any words (like meat/meet in English) which have a different spelling and meaning, but the same pronunciation.



Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

Danes love punning and wordplay (ordspil), and there are many opportunities for it in Danish. I haven’t delved into Danish etymology, and have just tried to be sensitive to semantic similarity, to find in this first category some words of possibly related meaning: blad (leaf, magazine), kort (map, card), fuld (full, drunk), have (garden, oceans), regning (arithmetic, bill).

Homophonic homographs with more remote and possibly unrelated meanings include: sky (cloud, shy, gravy), køer (cows, queues), frø (frog, seed), skade (damage, magpie), elvere (elevens, elves), nød (nut, distress), dyr (animal, expensive), gift (poison, married), ben (leg, bone), måtte (had to, mat).

Same sound, Different sign, Same meaning

Originally written in the runic alphabet, since the middle ages Danish has been written in the Latin alphabet, with supplementary letters such as å for aa, re-introduced officially in 1948, giving examples of variant spellings such as åben/ aaben (open).

Different sound, Same sign, Same meaning

When Danes use loan words, for example steak, computer from English, they may be pronounced according to a standard which is close to the pronunciation in the source language, or according to a different Danish standard pronunciation. This may not reflect different regional versions of Danish as much as the social background of the speaker.

Same sound, Different sign, Different meaning

Capitalisation of all nouns, as in German, was abolished in 1948, leaving capitonyms such as venstre (left) and Venstre (the Left) as heterographs.

Different sound, Same sign, Different meaning

In Danish, some words allow short or long pronunciation of the same written vowel, resulting in different meanings. In some cases, an existing Danish spelling is used for a foreign loanword, and takes on its meaning: dør pronounced with a short vowel means door, and with a long vowel to die; sort with a short vowel means black, and variety (e.g. of apple) with a long vowel; mås with a short vowel means moss, and puré (e.g. mashed potatoes or mash) with a long vowel.

Kost pronounced with a short vowel means diet, and broom with a long vowel. Legende pronounced ‘lie-ener’ means playing, and pronounced ‘legender’ with a hard g means legend.

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

Search online for ‘Danish synonyms’ and the first 50 results at least will list English terms for breads and pastries. So when I found orke and gide (to be bothered) given as synonyms in one dictionary, I didn’t have the strength to cross check or find more.

Low German, French and most recently English have supplied many loanwords to Danish since the middle ages, sometimes being used as synonyms for existing Danish words: begivenhed/ event.


Standard Mandarin Chinese

The Chinese written sign has developed over thousands of years, giving rise to a long and well attested tradition of evolving signs for the same referents, and with the same pronunciation (at least as far as we can tell in the case of the later tradition of literary recitation, as codified in the Qieyun dictionary by Lu Fayan in 601 CE). The evolution continues, and traditional signs have been systematically simplified to improve general literacy, though both traditional and simplified systems are still used, and dictionaries show both.

Up to the early 20th century, pronunciation of (certainly non-literary) Chinese was extremely varied. Even with the rigorous standardisation of pronunciation of Mandarin in the past century, there are still varieties of pronunciation within modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, even excluding dialects, which may not be distinguishable in pinyin spelling, but are clearly audible, and can be distinguished in the phonetic alphabet by linguists.

Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

  • 杜鹃 (dùjuān) means cuckoo and azalea.
  • 借 (jiè) means both to lend and to borrow – an instance of auto-antonym in Mandarin.
  • 连 (lián) means both military company and connect.

Same sound, Different sign, Same meaning

For example, 连/ 連 (both pronounced lián) are simplified and traditional versions of the character meaning connect.

Different sound, Same sign, Same meaning

For example, 线 (xiàn), meaning thread, may be pronounced with a palatalized dental (with the body of the tongue raised against the middle part of the roof of the mouth, as common among children and female speakers, as well as some males) or a palatal initial sound. (Duanmu, S., The phonology of standard Chinese, 2nd ed., 2007)

Same sound, Different sign, Different meaning

  • Spoken shǒu written as 手 means hand, and written as 首 shǒu means head, and the two have been homophonous for as far back as can be traced. (Norman, J., Chinese, 1988)
  • Spoken qīngdàn written as 清淡 means weak, and written as 氢弹. means hydrogen bomb.
  • Spoken lián written as 连 means connect, as 怜 means love, and as 廉 means honest.
  • The compound pronounced yìyì can represent 意义 (‘sense; meaning; significance’), 异议 (‘objection; dissent’), or 意译 (‘meaning-based translation’).

Different sound, Same sign, Different meaning

The character 行 can be pronounced háng meaning profession, or xíng, meaning OK.

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

Chinese has a special type of related mono-syllabic and di-syllabic synonyms, for example 蔬菜 shūcài meaning vegetables, and the compounds 灰尘, huīchén, dust, 时间, shíjiān, time, 休息, xiūxi, rest, 哭泣, kūqì, 喊叫, hǎnjiào, shout, all formed from two synonymous morphemes, each individually sharing the same meaning as the compound. The components may be of similar etymological derivation, or different as in 土地, tǔdi, soil, where the first sign is Austronesian, and the second Tibeto-Burman. (Behr, W., ‘A Chinese Phonological Enigma’: Four Comments. 2015)

傍晚 (bàngwǎn), 暮色 (mùsè), 薄暮 (bómù), and 黄昏 (huánghūn) are all di-syllabic words for dusk, two of them sharing a character (暮, mù, dusk) which itself means dusk.



Officially known as Cebuano, many speakers (especially outside Cebu) refer to this language as Bisayan. It is from the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. My source is a native of Mindanao whose mother tongue is Bisayan, and is educated to university level in English and Tagalog.

Like other languages in the modern Philippines, Bisayan is now written in the Latin alphabet, which supplanted an earlier pre-colonial indigenous alphabet. There is no standardised orthography for Bisayan, but my source disagrees with the statement (made without reference on Wikipedia) that spelling in print follows some standard pronunciation: for example, she says, newspapers from different parts of the language area feature different spellings for the same words, reflecting differences in pronunciation. Any differences in pronunciation should properly be reflected in corresponding differences in spelling, she says, and vice versa.

So of the four categories requiring variation between spelling and pronunciation, two are empty as far as this speaker is concerned, one contains only homophonic capitonyms, and another requires omission of accentual marks from the written word (as is often the case in written Bisayan) to qualify strictly as heterophonic homographs.

Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

Without going into etymology, and only being sensitive to semantic similarity, in this first category are some words of possibly related meaning – tubo (sugarcane, water pipe), dunggan (ears, heard) – and others not obviously so connected – pito (whistle, seven), paso (burnt, overlapping).

Same sound, Different sign, Same meaning

If pronunciation always closely follows spelling, this category is empty for Bisayan.

Different sound, Same sign, Same meaning

If spelling in print follows some standard pronunciation, there are very many examples of varying regional pronunciations of the same written word, for example balay (house) is pronounced without the L, bay, in some regions, and tawo (person) without the w (tao). The closer spelling follows pronunciation, the fewer examples of this there will be.

Same sound, Different sign, Different meaning

Datu (Sultan)/ datu (rich) is a (likely metonymic) homonymic capitonym.

Different sound, Same sign, Different meaning

If accentual marks are not written, pronouncing with an accent on the second syllable of some words can change their meaning: lata (from tin, to overripe with an accented second syllable), puso (water well, hanging rice), kamay (sugar, come here), baga (lungs, thick). In their unaccented written form, the appropriate meanings can be distinguished from their context.

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

Examples of synonyms in Bisayan are: bangko and lingkuranan (chair), katre and tulganan (bed), bisti and sanina (clothes), mobiya and mohawa (leaving), daan and dugay (old).

There are two alternative ways of counting numbers in Bisayan, one etymologically Austronesian, the other based on Spanish loanwords.



Bulgarian is a Balto-Slavic language in the wider Indo-European family. It is the first Slavic language attested in writing, initially in the Glagolitic and then Cyrillic alphabets used for more than 1,100 years. Its rich history reaches back to proto-Slavic roots, through a colonial period in which Ottoman loanwords (especially from Arabic and Persian) predominated, before being subsequently replaced again by native terms. In 1899 the Bulgarian Ministry of Education officially standardised the Bulgarian language mainly on the Eastern dialect, and further simplification of the alphabet came in 1945.

Same sound, Same sign, Different meaning

  • син (sin) son and the colour blue
  • мед (med) honey and copper
  • пръст (praust) finger and soil

Same sound, Different sign, Same meaning

This is apparently an empty category in Bulgarian

Different sound, Same sign, Same meaning

  • молив (pencil) is pronounced as m’oliv or mol’iv
  • In вино (vino, wine), село (selo, village) either vowel may be accented

Same sound, Different sign, Different meaning

  • маг / мак (mak) magician/ poppy
  • шеф/ шев (shef) boss/ seam
  • рог/ рок (rok) horn/ rock(dance)

Different sound, Same sign, Different meaning

  • вълна (vulna) means wool or wave, depending on whether the accent is on the first or second syllable, which is not marked in the written word
  • пара (para) means steam/ coin depending on whether the accent is on the first or second syllable

Different sound, Different sign, Same meaning

  • There are two sequences of names for the months of the year, one based on Old Bulgarian and the other on Latin names: голям Сечко/ януари (big sechko/ January), малък Сечко/ февруари (little sechko/ February)
  • Папур, кукуруз, гугучета, мамули, мисир, царка, пченка, кукумарка, цомбур, цаблан, мумурузка, царевица are all names for corn


Evolutionary semiology — a diachronic view?

I’ve joked elsewhere about primates developing the conceptual precursors to language acquisition through their experiences of disturbing a termite mound with a termite stick: this stick used by a chimp to disturb a termite mound does the same job as that stick (synonymy), and is equally useful on this or that termite mound (homonymy). Even if it were true, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to find synonymy and homonymy in all languages – X and Y can both develop from Z in different ways, gaining or losing features along the way.

That said, we’ve found homonymy and synonymy in 7 out of (an estimated total of) 7,000 current natural languages from different language families, which is at least a start, even if it’s not yet entirely conclusive. Whether they have featured in earlier languages, extinct languages, and proto-languages has not been addressed here at all, since my approach has been mostly synchronic, looking at signs, pronunciations and meanings for present day speakers, except in the case of a few etymologies and archaisms mentioned in passing, and in the brief backstories of some of the languages.

Certainly it would be interesting to look into homonymy and synonymy in Proto Indo European, Proto Chinese, even Nostratic, and so on, but the challenges in confidently and precisely linking sign, pronunciation and meaning in these constructed languages is overwhelmingly difficult.

It is widely accepted that a driver of semantic change over time is avoidance of excessive homonymy or synonymy, and that languages avoid adopting sound-changes which would create many homophones, to the extent that they make communication less effective. On the other hand, Geoffrey Sampson wrote in A Chinese Phonological Enigma (2015) that ‘homophony in the Old Chinese of three thousand years ago may not have been strikingly greater than in modern European languages,’ and Jerry Norman in his survey of Chinese (1988) points to ‘a consistent tendency toward a reduction of the number of discrete syllables in Chinese from ancient times down to the present, resulting in an ever greater number of homonyms; a large number of morphemes which were once distinct have now merged.’ Whether Chinese must be considered as the exception that proves the rule, or there is a yet undiscovered refinement of the rule perhaps related to other special features of the Chinese language, such as the clear differentiation of written signs irrespective of increasing homophony, appears to be still hotly debated.


And what are the discoveries from all of this? Once the play of form and meaning has been illustrated in English, why continue to look at other languages? And what does it all have to do with actual playable glass bead games, which is this author’s primary interest?

The link is the Loom of Form and Meaning: all of these examples are illustrations in language of changing forms and meanings – and more particularly, meanings changing while forms remain the same, and forms changing while meanings remain the same – which is the substance of the glass bead game as a game of connections. My interest has been the extent to which these examples were common to different languages, and while this small collection can hardly be considered an abundance of evidence, it has partly satisfied my curiosity, for now.

The play of form and meaning in some languages is restricted by a ‘what-you-write-is-what-you-hear’ constraint to different degrees, which limits the frequency of alternative signs/spellings and pronunciations, heterographs and heteronyms. But even in these cases we have still found examples of homonymy and synonymy. It doesn’t prove homonymy and synonymy are universal, necessary features of all language, but it does show they’re there in a selection of different natural languages, and might be enough to hypothesize that the same basic cognitive mechanisms of the glass bead game are inherent in the language faculty: the ability to use and reuse the same forms (sounds and signs) for different purposes, and to express the same idea in different forms.

Meanwhile, people seem to enjoy playing this game in a language they know. If you’d like to correct or add to the examples in any of the above languages, or try out the game yourself in another language, I’d be delighted to hear from you. I’ve included a table after the notes below which may help by providing examples in English in each of the six categories.

Meanwhile, thanks to the AiAiba San community (Ju|hoansi), Erika (Khoekhoegowab), John and Karen (Danish), Wai Chia (for introducing me to Pleco), Junneth (Bisayan), and Reni (Bulgarian). Also to Hirang for his contribution on Indian languages below.

Annexure on some Indian languages (added June 2022)

On Indian languages, a multilingual friend offers interesting examples in three categories, but maintains that ‘owing to the fixed pronunciation of every letter in all Indian languages’ it doesn’t seem possible to have:

1) different sound, same sign, different meaning;

2) same sound, different sign, same meaning; and

3) same sound, different sign, different meaning.

There are examples of different sounds with the same sign owing to different regional pronunciations, but such differences do not differentiate between alternative meanings.

Same sound, same sign, different meaning:


Kal (कल, pronounced kull same as hull (of a ship)) means yesterday or tomorrow.

Hari : हरि — means — god or the color green


Maharaj (મહારાજ, pronounced mu — (same as bu in but) haa — raaj) means king or cook.

Khaatar (ખાતર, pronounced khaa — tar (same as tor in motor)) means robbery or fertilizer.


Padah (पद, pronounced pa-da-huh) means foot or quarter (1/4th).


Hari (ಹರಿ) means tear or flow, or god. Hari also means god in Gujarati, Hindi, Sanskrit and Telugu and hence the name Hari is common throughout India.

Different sound, same sign, same meaning:


Yoga (योग) can be read as joga in Hindi and would still mean the same (it is common to read the sound ‘ya’ as ‘ja’ in different parts of India).

More examples include:

· vigyan (science: विज्ञान, pronounced vigñāna — vig — yaan) can also be pronounced vijyan;

· pragya (intelligence: प्रज्ञा, pronounced pragñā — prag — yaa) or prajya


Saru (સારું, pronounced saa — ru (rhymes with Sue)) can be read as Saru or Haru and both mean ‘good’ (it is common to read the sound ‘sa’ as ‘ha’ without changing the meaning).

Different sound, different sign, same meaning:


Subah (सुबह, pronounced Su (same as Sue) — Buh (same as huh)) and Savera (सवेरा, pronounced Savērā — Sa — veraa) both mean morning


Nayan (નયન, pronounced nayan), Netra (નેત્ર, pronounced Nētra) and Lochan (લોચન, pronounced Lōcana) all mean eyes


Ambhoja (अंभोज, pronounced um (rhymes with sum) — bho — juh), Varija (वारिज pronounced vaa — ri — juh), Jalaj (जलज, pronounced ja — la — ja) all mean clouds.


Swalpa (ಸ್ವಲ್ಪ, pronounced svalpa) and Koncha (ಕೊಂಚ, pronounced kon̄ca) both mean less or little (in terms of quantity).


(1) I started working on this language game at about the same time I developed the closely related Loom of Form and Meaning (

The Loom of Form and Meaning, superimposed on an illustration of weaving of wampum beads in The Worldwide History of Beads by Lois Sherr Dubin (2015)

This particular game is concerned with words. Instead of having two dimensions (form and meaning) like the Loom, each with three possible states (same, similar and different), this structure has three dimensions (sign/spelling, sound/pronunciation, and meaning), each with two possible states (same and different). The connections between this game and the Loom are explored further in the footnotes below.

(2) As well as the three dimensions used here (sound/pronunciation, sign/spelling and meaning), there is a fourth dimension in the etymology of words. This becomes significant, for example, when identifying true homonyms such as ‘cleave,’ which are spelt and pronounced the same, but have different meanings arising from different etymologies. There are other possible dimensions of difference too: the precise articulation of the spoken word; the details of the handwriting, font or physical medium of the written word. None of these are explicitly included in this word game, though all may feature as an aspect of ‘form’ on the Loom which conflates all such qualities of words into the single dimension of ‘form,’ including pronunciation, spelling, and inflexion, as well as their etymology, and written or spoken style. Beyond the realm of language on the Loom, ‘form’ can also include the feel, taste and smell of a thing, and that close equivalent in a thing for the etymology of a word: its provenance.

(3) They are B1 on the Loom because they are related by contiguity.

(4) These last two types are C1 on the Loom due to the same word’s meanings being opposite or different.

(5) Because these non-standard spellings remain similar overall, they are A2 on the Loom. Arguably such differences can sometimes signify something about the writer, which may in turn modify the meaning of the message itself, and its position on the Loom.

(6) These differences cannot be detected in print, and are A2 on the Loom. Again, such differences can signify something about the speaker, which may in turn modify the meaning of the message itself.

(7) On the Loom, they are either B or C depending on the degree of difference in meaning, and column 2 or 3 depending on the degree of difference in the sign — typically C2 in the above examples (very different meaning, slightly different sign).

(8) Legible only within context, though understandable in isolation if verbalized, these are typically C2.

(9) To the extent that these substitutions are taken to have the same meaning, they are A3 on the Loom.

(10) Mostly C3 on the Loom with some exceptions discussed below.

(11) If it’s aspects of the form which are similar, with different meaning, as in these examples, they are C2 on the Loom. Unnoticed or overlooked differences in form which don’t affect meaning may remain as A2/A3. Etymologically or grammatically related words, which are nevertheless different (but sometimes similar) in pronunciation and sign, sometimes have related meanings, and are generally B2 on the Loom. The last subset I’ll mention which is another special case within this category are pairs of regular (not auto-) antonyms: because they are in a structured relationship with each other, each pair is classified as B3 on the Loom.