In phonology, minimal pairs are pairs of words or phrases in a particular language, which differ in only one phonological element, such as a phone, phoneme, toneme or chroneme and have a distinct meaning. They are used to demonstrate that two phones constitute two separate phonemes in the language.
As an example for English vowels, the pair "let" + "lit" proves that the phones [ɛ] (in let) and [ɪ] (in lit) do in fact represent distinct phonemes /ɛ/ and /ɪ/. An example for English consonants is the minimal pair of "pat" + "bat". In phonetics, this pair, like any other, differs in number of ways. In this case, the contrast appears largely to be conveyed with a difference in the voice onset time of the initial consonant as the configuration of the mouth is same for [p] and [b]; however, there is also a possible difference in duration, which visual analysis using high quality video supports.
Phonemic differentiation may vary between different dialects of a language, so that a particular minimal pair in one accent is a pair of homophones in another. This does not necessarily mean that one of the phonemes is absent in the homonym accent; merely that it is not present in the same range of contexts.
Differentiations in English
Following pairs prove existence of various distinct phonemes in English.
|word 1||word 2||IPA 1||IPA 2||note|
Differentiating consonants with same location and manner of articulation
In the articulation of bilabial plosives, 4 phones are defined by the characteristics voiced/unvoiced and aspirated/unaspirated: [p], [pʰ], [b] and [bʱ]. In different languages only some of these may occur and the number of phonemes formed may be different again.
|60px||English||Phones [p] as in "spin" and [pʰ] as in "pin" both occur, but are allophones of the phoneme /p/ and no minimal pair can be found to distinguish them, but the word "bin" shows that the phone [b] forms a phoneme /b/ separate from /p/.|
|60px||Mandarin||Only phones (and phonemes) [p] and [pʰ] occur. In the Pinyin transcription /pʰ/ is written "p" and /p/ is written "b" (using the two available Latin letters for the two phonemes).|
|60px||French||In romance languages and other European languages only phones (and phonemes) [p] and [b] occur.|
|60px||Hindi/Urdu||All four phones are separate phonemes.|
|60px||Thai||Three phones occur and form three phonemes, as in these examples:
The following table shows a minimal set in French distinguishing vowels, some or all of which may sound alike to an Anglophone, because the [œ] and [y] sounds do not exist in English:
A minimal triplet of consonants in French is:
|bête noire||/bɛtnwaʁ/||black beast, pet peeve|
|baie noire||/bɛnwaʁ/||black berry (not blackberry, which is mûre sauvage)|
Because [tn] is not a single phoneme in French, this shows a minimal pair between the presence and absence of [t] next to [n], which shares its point of articulation. [n] and [ɲ] differ only in point of articulation.
There are three verbs in Hebrew which demonstrate the distinction, in some dialects, between a velar stop and an uvular stop on one hand, and a glottal stop with and without tightening of the throat on the other:
In the following two Hebrew verbs, the only distinction is a glottal stop in the middle of the first word:
In Korean, phones [ɾ] in "Korea' and [l] in "Seoul" are allophones of one phoneme and are perceived by native speakers of Korean as a single phoneme. The difference is that [ɾ] is an allophone of this phoneme before vowels.
In Spanish, [z] and [s] are both allophones of /s/. [z] appears only before voiced consonants as in mismo /mizmo/.
Hungarian and Italian have distinctive length of consonants, as did Latin. A differentiator for length may be called a chroneme. In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), lengthening can be indicated by doubling the symbol, or by the special sign /ː/. Doubling is commonly used for consonants, while the special symbol is used for vowels. E.g. in Italian:
|เขา||/kʰǎw/||khǎo||short, rising tone||he/she|
|ขาว||/kʰǎːw/||khǎo||long, rising tone||white|
|เข้า||/kʰâw/||khâo||short, falling tone||enter|
|ข้าว||/kʰâːw/||khâo||long, falling tone||rice|
|เข่า||/kʰàw/||khào||short, low tone||knee|
|ข่าว||/kʰàːw/||khào||long, low tone||news|
|Italian||becchino||/ˈbekkino/||let them peck|
|Spanish||limite||/li'mite/||he/she limits, you (formal) limit|
Minimal pairs may differ superficially in more than one place if one feature is dependent on the other. For example, English record (noun) and record (verb) (and similar pairs) appear superficially not to be minimal pairs for stress because they differ in vowel quality as well. However, since the differences in vowel quality are predictable consequences of the differences in stress, such pairs are considered minimal pairs. The case is similar in Russian, eg. мука ('torture, pain') and мука ('flour').
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Minimal pairs.|
- Software that generates a list of minimal pairs from a wordlist
- Consonant Contrasts Australian English (non-rhotic) Minimal Pair Words and Pictures from Caroline Bowen. Most of these will "work" in other dialects of English.
- Vowel and Diphthong Contrasts: Australian English (non-rhotic) Minimal Pair Words and Pictures from Caroline Bowen. Most of these will "work" in other dialects of English.
- Picturable Minimal Pairs ... ... and other word lists (without pictures) in English from Caroline Bowen.
- Phonological Therapy Speech-Language Pathologists' intervention "tricks" and techniques involving minimal pairs - Words and Pictures from Caroline Bowen
- Freebies Index Many words and pictures: singleton consonant lists, revisions and repairs, minimal pairs, etc from Caroline Bowen