Date of Award

Winter 1-2021

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Master of Arts (AM/MA)

Degree Type



Lexical distinctiveness, according to which a written form represents one and only one morpheme, is a feature of some writing systems. For example, ‹bear› and ‹bare› are spelled differently in English. In two experiments, we asked whether readers and spellers of English benefit from distinctive spellings of homophones. In Experiment 1, university students listened to 40 passages, each containing a novel homophone (e.g., /kel/ used to mean a gossip-lover). In Experiment 2, participants read the passages. Half of the novel homophones were homographic (e.g., ‹kale›), and half were heterographic (e.g., ‹kail›). In both experiments, participants answered questions about the novel word either by choosing between two spelling options (e.g, ‹kale› vs ‹kail›) or producing their own spelling. We also asked participants about whether new words in a language should have distinctive spellings. The majority of participants in both experiments expressed a preference for distinctive spellings. Experiment 1 participants chose heterographic spellings more frequently than homographic ones; however, they produced more homographic than heterographic spellings. Experiment 2 participants recalled heterographic and homographic homophones from the passages at equal rates, suggesting they did not benefit from distinct spellings of novel homophones. These findings lead us to question whether lexical distinctiveness is an essential feature of the English writing system, as some linguists have theorized. We explore various factors that work against lexical distinctiveness, including the distribution of heterographic homophones in the English language, the challenge of generating novel spellings, and the unclear division between polysemy and homophony.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Rebecca Treiman

Committee Members

Andrew Butler, Kristin VanEngen