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Minimal pair

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 distinct meanings. 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" can be used to demonstrate that the phones (in let) and (in lit) do in fact represent distinct phonemes and . An example for English consonants is the minimal pair of "pat" + "bat". In phonetics, this pair, like any other, differs in a 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 the same for and ; 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
pin bin initial consonant
rot lot
thigh thy
zeal seal
bin bean vowel
pen pan
hat had final consonant

Differentiating consonants with same location and manner of articulation

In the articulation of bilabial plosives, four phones are defined by the characteristics voiced/unvoiced and aspirated/unaspirated: , , and . In different languages only some of these may occur and the number of phonemes formed may be different again.

Pattern Language(s) Explanation
English Phones as in "spin" and as in "pin" both occur, but are allophones of the phoneme and no minimal pair can be found to distinguish them, but the word "bin" shows that the phone forms a phoneme separate from .
Mandarin Only phones (and phonemes) and occur. In the Pinyin transcription is written "p" and is written "b" (using the two available Latin letters for the two phonemes).
French/Portuguese In Romance languages and other European languages only phones (and phonemes) and occur.
Hindi/Urdu All four phones are separate phonemes.
Thai Three phones occur and form three phonemes, as in these examples:
  • "sheet"
  • "to go"
  • "danger"

Differentiating vowels

The following table shows a minimal set in French distinguishing vowels, some or all of which may sound alike to an Anglophone, because the and sounds do not exist in English:

word IPA meaning
cire wax
s re sure
s ur sister
sieur sir
sueur sweat

Differentiating consonants

A minimal triplet of consonants in French is:

word IPA meaning
b te noire black beast, pet peeve
baie noire black bay
baignoire bathtub

Because is not a single phoneme in French, this shows a minimal pair between the presence and absence of next to , which shares its point of articulation. and 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:

word IPA meaning
read, call
tear apart

In the following two Hebrew verbs, the only distinction is a glottal stop in the middle of the first word:

word IPA meaning

In Korean, phones in "Korea" and in "Seoul" are allophones of one phoneme and are perceived by native speakers of Korean as a single phoneme. The difference is that is the allophone of this phoneme before vowels and is the allophone in the other contexts.

Differentiating chronemes

Hungarian[1], Italian and Polish; 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 . Doubling is commonly used for consonants, while the special symbol is used for vowels. E.g. in Italian:

word IPA meaning
pala shovel
palla ball

Hungarian, German and Thai have distinctive vowel length, as did Latin. E.g. in Thai (and compare this example also to the one on tone):

word IPA RTGS quality meaning
kh o short, rising tone he/she
kh o long, rising tone white
kh o short, falling tone enter
kh o long, falling tone rice
kh o short, low tone knee
kh o long, low tone news

Differentiating tonemes

Languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Yoruba and Igbo (See: pitch accent and tonal language.) For example in Thai:

word IPA RTGS quality meaning
kh :o rising tone white
kh :o falling tone rice
kh :o low tone news

Differentiating stress

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and Greek have many minimal pairs differing only in stress; Dutch has several (stress indicated by acute accent). E.g.:

language word IPA meaning
Dutch voork men prevent
Dutch v rkomen occur
Spanish l mite (the) limit
Spanish limite he/she limits, you (formal) limit
Spanish limit I limited
Portuguese duvida (he) doubts
Portuguese d vida (a) doubt
Italian ancora anchor
Italian ancora still, yet
Romanian copii children
Romanian copii copies
Greek never
Greek when

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, e.g. ('torture, pain') and ('flour').

External links


als:Minimalpaar ar: ca:Parell m nim cs:Minim ln p r da:Minimalt par de:Minimalpaar es:Par m nimo eo:Minimuma paro fr:Paire minimale gv:Jees sloo ko: is:L gmarkspar it:Coppia minima he: nl:Minimaal paar ja: no:Minimalt par pl:Para minimalna pt:Par m nimo ru: sv:Minimalt ordpar zh-yue: zh:

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