In phonology, minimal pairs are pairs of words or phrases in a particular language that differ in only one phonological element, such as a phoneme, toneme or chroneme, and have distinct meanings. They are used to demonstrate that two phones constitute two separate phonemes in the language.
Many phonologists in the middle part of the 20th century had a strong interest in developing techniques for discovering the phonemes of unknown languages, and in some cases setting up writing systems for these languages. The major work of Kenneth Pike on the subject has the title Phonemics: a technique for reducing languages to writing. The minimal pair was an essential tool in the discovery process, arrived at by substitution or commutation tests. Modern phonology is much less interested in such issues, and the minimal pair is consequently considered to be of little theoretical importance.
As an example for English vowels, the pair "let" + "lit" can be used to demonstrate 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". The following table shows other pairs demonstrating the existence of various distinct phonemes in English. All the possible minimal pairs for any language may be set out in the same way.
|word 1||word 2||IPA 1||IPA 2||note|
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 contrastive in the same range of contexts.
In addition to the minimal pairs of vowels and consonants provided above, others may be found:
Many languages show contrasts between long and short vowels and consonants. A distinctive difference in length is attributed by some phonologists to a unit called a chroneme. Thus in Italian we find the following minimal pair based on long and short /l/:
However, in such a case it is not easy to decide whether a long vowel or consonant should be treated as having an added chroneme, or should simply be treated as a geminate sound, i.e. as two phonemes.
Classical Latin, German, some Italian dialects, almost all Uralic languages, Thai, and many other languages also have distinctive length in vowels. Consider, for example, the cŭ/cū minimal pair in the dialect spoken near Palmi (Calabria, Italy):
|Dialect spoken in Palmi||IPA||Quality||Etymology||Latin||Italian||English|
|Cŭ voli?||/kuˈvɔːli/||short||cŭ < lat. qu(is) ("who?")||Quis vult?||Chi vuole?||Who wants?|
|Cū voli?||/kuːˈvɔːli/||long||cū < lat. qu(o) (ill)ŭ(m) ("for-what him?")||Quō illum/illud vult?||Per che cosa lo vuole?||For what (reason) does he want him/it?|
In some languages, like Italian, word-initial consonants are geminated after certain vowel-final words in the same prosodic unit. Sometimes, the phenomenon can create some syntactic-gemination-minimal-pairs:
|Italian sandhi||IPA||Meaning||Sample sentence||Meaning of the sample sentence|
|dà casa||/daˈkkaːza/||(he/she) gives (his/her) house||Carlo ci dà casa.||Carlo gives us his house.|
|da casa||/daˈkaːza/||from home||Carlo uscì da casa.||Carlo got out from home.|
In this case, the graphical accent on dà is just a diacritical mark that does not change the pronunciation of the word itself. However, in some specific areas, like Tuscany, both phrases are pronounced /daˈkkaːza/ so they can be distinguished only from their context.
Minimal pairs for tone contrasts in tone languages can be established; some writers refer to this as a contrast involving a toneme. For example, the Kono language distinguishes high tone and low tone on syllables:
|high||/ ̄ buu/||horn|
Languages in which stress may occur in different positions within the word often have contrasts that can be shown in minimal pairs. Thus in Greek and Spanish:
English speakers are able to hear the difference between, for example, “great ape” and “grey tape”, though phonemically the two phrases are identical: /ɡreɪteɪp/. The difference between the two phrases, which constitute a minimal pair, is said to be one of juncture. At the word boundary, a "plus juncture" /+/ is posited which is said to be the conditioning factor that results in “great ape” having an /eɪ/ diphthong shortened by pre-fortis clipping and a /t/ with little aspiration because it is not syllable-initial, whereas in “grey tape” the /eɪ/ has its full length and the /t/ is aspirated. Only languages which have allophonic differences associated with grammatical boundaries have juncture as a phonological element. It is claimed that French does not have that, so for example, “des petits trous” and “des petites roues” (phonemically both /depətitʁu/) are phonetically identical.
The principle of a simple binary opposition between the two members of a minimal pair may be extended to cover a minimal set where a number of words differ from each other in terms of one phone in a particular position in the word. For example, the vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ of Swahili are shown to be distinct by the following set of words: pata 'hinge', peta 'bend', pita 'pass', pota 'twist', puta 'thrash'. However, establishing such sets is not always straightforward  and may require very complex study of multiple oppositions as expounded by, for example, Nikolai Trubetzkoy; this subject-matter lies beyond the domain of an article on minimal pairs.
Minimal pairs were an important part of the theory of pronunciation teaching during its development in the period of structuralist linguistics, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, and minimal pair drills were widely used to train students to discriminate among the phonemes of the target language. However, later writers have criticized this approach as being artificial and lacking in relevance to language learners' needs.
Some writers have claimed that learners are likely not to hear differences between phones if the difference is not a phonemic one. One of the objectives of contrastive analysis of languages' sound systems was to identify points of likely difficulty for language learners arising from differences in phoneme inventories between the native language and the target language. However, experimental evidence for this claim is hard to find, and the claim should be treated with caution.
- Jones, Daniel (1944). "Chronemes and Tonemes".
- Pike, Kenneth (1947). Phonemics.
- Swadesh, M. (1934). "The Phonemic Principle".
- Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. p. 122.
- Jones, D. (1931). The "Word" as a phonetic entity.
- O'Connor and Tooley (1964). The perceptibility of certain word-boundaries.
- O'Connor (1973). Phonetics.
- Ladefoged, P. (2006). A Course in Phonetics. pp. 35–6.
- Ladefoged, P. (2001). Vowels and Consonants. p. 26.
- Fromkin and Rodman (1993). An Introduction to Language. pp. 218–220.
- Trubetzkoy, N. (1969). Principles of Phonology.
- Celce-Murcia; et al. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. pp. 3–4.
- Brown, Gillian (1990). Listening to Spoken English. pp. 144–6.
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- Pennington, M. (1996). Phonology in English Language Teaching. p. 24.
- Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics across Cultures.
- Celce-Murcia; et al. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. pp. 19–20.
- Brown, G. (1990) Listening to Spoken English, Longman
- Celce-Murcia, M., D. Brinton and J. Goodwin (1996) Teaching Pronunciation, Cambridge University Press
- Fromkin, V. and Rodman, R. (1993) An Introduction to Language, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
- Jones, Daniel (1931) 'ðə "wəːd" əz ə fonetik entiti' ['The "Word" as a phonetic entity'], Le Maître Phonétique, XXXVI, pp. 60–65.
- Jones, Daniel (1944) 'Chronemes and Tonemes', Acta Linguistica, IV, Copenhagen, pp. 1–10.
- Ladefoged, Peter (2001) Vowels and Consonants, Blackwell
- Ladefoged, Peter (2006) A Course in Phonetics, Thomson
- Lado, R. (1957) Linguistics across Cultures, University of Michigan Press
- Lado, R. (1961) Language Testing, Longman
- O'Connor, J.D. (1973) Phonetics, Penguin
- O'Connor, J.D and Tooley, O. (1964) 'The perceptibility of certain word-boundaries', in Abercrombie et al. (eds) In Honour of Daniel Jones, Longman, pp. 171–6.
- Pennington, M. (1996) Phonology in English Language Teaching, Longman
- Pike, Kenneth (1947) Phonemics, University of Michigan Press
- Roach, Peter (2009) English Phonetics and Phonology, Cambridge University Press
- Swadesh, M. (1934) 'The Phonemic Principle', Language vol. 10, pp. 117–29
- Trubetzkoy, N., translated by C. Baltaxe(1969) Principles of Phonology, University of California Press
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Minimal pairs.|
- Software that generates a list of minimal pairs from a wordlist
- Complete list of minimal pairs in English RP created by John Higgins.
- Caroline Bowen: