Phoneme vs. Minimal Pair in English Phonetics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In phonology and phonetics, the term minimal pair refers to two words that differ in only one sound, such as hit and hid. The words in a minimal pair have completely different, often unrelated definitions. Minimal pairs are useful to linguists because they provide insight into how sound and meaning coexist in language.

Definition of a Minimal Pair

James McGilvray provides a clear definition of a minimal pair in The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky: "A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ in a single phoneme. Minimal pairs are often used to show that two sounds contrast in a language. For example, we can demonstrate that [s] and [z] contrast in English by adducing minimal pairs such as sip and zip, or bus and buzz. Since the only difference in these words is the [s] vs. [z], we conclude that they belong to distinct phonemes. However, a similar test would show that [a:j] and [Aj] are distinct phonemes in English, since writer and rider appear to be minimal pairs distinguished in their second elements, not their fourth," (McGilvray 2005).

In short, minimal pairs serve as tools to establish that two or more sounds are contrastive. A difference in sound means a difference in meaning, notes Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer, and thus a minimal pair is "the clearest and easiest way to identify phonemes in a language," (Ottenheimer 2012).

Examples of Minimal Pairs

  • "We looked!
    Then we saw him step in on
    the mat!
    We looked!
    And we saw him!
    The Cat in the Hat!" (Seuss 1957).
  • "Cheers and Jeers provides an opportunity to use music and humor to relax and release tension," (Holcomb 2017).
  • "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not," (Seuss 1971).
  • "The US Coast Guard had 125-foot cutters and eight 765-foot long patrol boats. By the late 1920s, forty-five vessels operated out of this local base with some parking at the pier, as can be seen in a postcard," (Deese 2006).
  • "The role of the sympathetic nervous system is to prepare the body for emergencies, commonly known as fright, flight and fight reactions," (Moonie 2000).

Word Position and Context

With regard to both creating and understanding minimal pairs, context is everything, as Mehmet Yavas explains. "[T]he only way we can create a minimal pair with reference to the two sounds involved is to put them in exactly the same environment in terms of word position and the surrounding context, To clarify further, the pair: jail–Yale shows the contrast between /dʒ/ and /j/ in initial position, budge–buzz focuses on the contrast between /dʒ/ and /z/ in final position, while witch–wish contrasts /t∫/ and /ʃ/ in final position. It should be noted that minimal pairs include forms that have different spellings, as evidenced in jail–Yale," (Yavas 2011).

Near Minimal Pairs

True minimal pairs aren't too common, but near minimal pairs are easy to find. "[S]ometimes it is not possible to find perfect minimal pairs differentiated by only a single sound for every phoneme. Sometimes it is necessary to settle for near minimal pairs ... [P]leasure and leather qualify as a near minimal pair, since the sounds immediately adjacent to the target sounds, [ð] and [ʒ], are the same in both words: [ɛ] before the target sound and [ɹ] after it. Like minimal pairs, near minimal pairs are usually sufficient to demonstrate that two sounds are separate phonemes in a language," (Gordon 2019).

Sources

  • Deese, Alma Wynelle. St. Petersburg, Florida: A Visual History. History Press, 2006.
  • Gordon, Matthew. "Phonology: Organization of Speech Sounds." How Languages Work: An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Holcomb, Edie L. Getting MORE Excited About USING Data. 3rd ed., Corwin Press, 2017.
  • McGilvray, James Alasdair. The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Moonie, Neil. Advanced Health and Social Care. Heinemann, 2000.
  • Ottenheimer, Harriet Joseph. The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Cengage Learning, 2012.
  • Seuss, Dr. The Cat in the Hat. Random House, 1957.
  • Seuss, Dr. The Lorax. Penguin Random House, 1971.
  • Yavas, Mehmet. Applied English Phonology. 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.