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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" 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". 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 [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 EnglishEdit

Following pairs prove existence of various distinct phonemes in English.

word 1 word 2 IPA 1 IPA 2 note
pin bin /pɪn/ /bɪn/ initial consonant
rot lot /rɒt/ /lɒt/
zeal seal /ziːl/ /siːl/
bin bean /bɪn/ /biːn/ vowel
pen pan /pɛn/ /pæn/
hat had /hæt/ /hæd/ final consonant

Differentiating consonants with same location and manner of articulationEdit

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.

Pattern Language(s) Explanation
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/Portuguese 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:
  • ใบ /baɪ/ "sheet"
  • ไป /paɪ/ "to go"
  • ภัย /pʰaɪ/ "danger"

Differentiating vowelsEdit

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:

word IPA meaning
cire /siʁ/ wax
sûre /syʁ/ sure
sœur /sœʁ/ sister
sieur /sjœʁ/ sir
sueur /sɥœʁ/ sweat

Differentiating consonantsEdit

A minimal triplet of consonants in French is:

word IPA meaning
bête noire /bɛtnwaʁ/ black beast, pet peeve
baie noire /bɛnwaʁ/ black berry (not blackberry, which is mûre sauvage)
baignoire /bɛɲwaʁ/ bathtub

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:

word IPA meaning
קרא /qɔːrɔːʔ/ read, call
קרע /qɔːraʕ/ tear apart
כרע /kɔːraʕ/ kneel

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

word IPA meaning
לראות /liːrʔoːθ/ see
לירות /liːroːθ/ shoot

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.

Differentiating chronemesEdit

Hungarian, 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 /ː/. Doubling is commonly used for consonants, while the special symbol is used for vowels. E.g. in Italian:

word IPA meaning
pala /ˈpala/ spade
palla /ˈpalla/ 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
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

Differentiating tonemesEdit

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

word IPA RTGS quality meaning
ขาว /kʰǎːw/ khǎ:o rising tone white
ข้าว /kʰâːw/ khâ:o falling tone rice
ข่าว /kʰàːw/ khà:o low tone news

Differentiating stressEdit

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

language word IPA meaning
Dutch voorkómen /voːrˈkoːmə(n)/ prevent
Dutch vóórkomen /ˈvoːrkoːmə(n)/ occur
Romanian copíi /koˈpi/ children
Romanian cópii /ˈkopi/ copies
Portuguese andarão /ãdaˈɾãw/ will walk
Portuguese andaram /ãˈdaɾãw/ walked
Italian becchìno /beˈkkino/ undertaker
Italian bécchino /ˈbekkino/ let them peck
Spanish límite /ˈlimite/ (the) limit
Spanish limite /liˈmite/ he/she limits, you (formal) limit
Spanish limité /limiˈte/ I limited
Greek ποτέ /poˈtɛ/ never
Greek πότε /ˈpotɛ/ 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, eg. мука ('torture, pain') and мука ('flour').

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