If I were an alien from a foreign country, as opposed to one from outer space, I’m sure it would be difficult to learn the English language. (I guess the space alien would probably have problems as well.)

I really don’t know how all these Asians and Hispanics have managed it, but I’m glad they have. I believe if you live in the U.S.A. you should speak English.

The reason I think our language is so hard to master lies in its homophones.

Can you remember back to the school lessons in which you learned synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, also known as homophones and homographs. (There are minor differences in use, but we’re not interested in that. At least, I hope we’re not.)

The first two listed by one of the latest Merriam-Webster discussion are bazaar and bizarre.

Bazaar is where we go shopping. Bizarre is something odd or eccentric.

Nothing could be more diverse than cymbal and symbol, yet both sound exactly the same. A clanging cymbal is part of the percussion part of an orchestra. A symbol is something that stands for something. Nowadays, we have emojis, which I believe are little symbols.

Believe it or not, muscle and mussel both really began as the same. A mussel, the mollusk eaten in more northern parts of the country, was named in honor of the muscle that runs under our skin. True story.

Then there’s aloud and allowed. One those of us who read stories to children do aloud.

The other is when the children sit and listen, and the reading is allowed or let to happen. These words don’t get confused as many homophones do.

I don’t think we get confused with colonel and kernel, as well, though both sound the same.

A colonel heads up part of an army. A kernel is a grain of corn, or other kind of grain. Strange bedfellows.

Do you eat cereal for breakfast? If you have it every day, you could say it is consumed serially.

Sad to say, the most times you hear the word serial is when you are talking about a killer who murders a bunch of people.

There used to be magazine or newspaper stories which appeared, one by one, as part of a serial.

How’s this for a phenomenon? A triple homophone in borough, burrow and burro.

Borough is used among other things, as a political division of a burg, from which the word is derived. New York has five boroughs. Can you name them?

A burrow is a hole in the ground, or the act of getting into one. A burro we all know is a donkey like creature, from the Latin burricus, meaning “small horse.”

I knew a columnist from New Orleans who raised burros. The babies were just darling.

Hope you are keeping your words straight and spelling them correctly.

Cathy Gillentine is a Daily News columnist. She may be reached at cathy.gillentine@comcast.net.

(10) comments

Robert Braeking

I will use a paring knife to skin a pair of pears. English is such a funny language.

Bailey Jones

Emoticons never let me down. [tongue]

Miceal O'Laochdha

In the writing that I do in my work, I must frequently use the words cite, sight, and site. And it is very important to use the correct spelling in each instance. Computer spell-checking is not helpful; in fact, if it is turned on it tends to increase the likelihood of error.

Jose' Boix

Cathy, thanks for your appreciation of us Hispanics who did what is right - to learn to read, write and speak the language of our home Country! To add, however, that in Spanish - like probably many other languages - there are similar language communication challenges, such as: Casar = To get Married & Cazar = To Hunt; Bomba = A Pump or A Bomb; Asar = To Roast) & Azar = Chance, Fate; and Bienes = Property & Vienes = To Come. In the end and in my judgment, English seems to have developed into the most effective communicative language.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Jose', your comment here gives me hope that you might be able to answer a question that has been driving me nuts for about 45 years: why is it that in some Spanish-speaking countries, the traffic stop sign on the corner says ALTO and in others, it says PARE?

Jose' Boix

Miceal: You have "stomped me." While I have travelled to Spain and Latin America, I somehow was oblivious to the different uses. True that both words have "4 letters - so they fit within the signs" and both can define the act of "stopping," ALTO - as a word can also mean TALL. PARE however, within my limited knowledge only means STOP. Sorry that I can't be of any more definite help! Great challenge, though! Thank you!

Miceal O'Laochdha

In Mexico and (if I remember correctly) Spain it is ALTO. But in Venezuela it is PARE. And somewhere else I have frequented, either Panama or Columbia perhaps, it is also PARE. I have grown accustomed to it and don't really notice anymore which one I see but, in speech, I have always heard alto used for stop and not pare so it has just bugged me; kind of like the years I spent trying to figure out how to say lemon in Espanol when lime is limon… many conversations in Panama trying to explain my question based on verde vs. amarillo until someone finally told me they don't have lemons in Panama, only limes. Still don't know if that is true but I have never seen a lemon there.

Jose' Boix

Miceal: Your challenge continues as PARE has another meaning; Stand-Up. As when someone requests that you "Do not Stand-Up": No se PARE (formal) or No te PARES (colloquial/informal). In thinking it more, the presumption is that there is no standard PARE or ALTO in Latin or Hispanic Countries - just my guess! Thanks for the challenge; sorry that I have no conclusive response!

Robert Braeking

Michael, The American market would never accept cars made in the capital of Peru. Lima being the Spanish for lemon.

Jose' Boix

Just to add some clarification and a fact. To clarify, Lima is a fruit in the Citrus class - not a Lemon, which is Limón (yellow in color) in Spanish, the Lime (green in color)fruit in English was called in my time Limón Francés (also green in color). In my home we had the 3 varieties of the citrus. The added fact: The Chevy Nova of the time, did not sell well in Latin America! Who would buy a car that "No vá" which means "It does not go." The beauty of languages!

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