Minimal pair

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is a stub and thus not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

In linguistics, two units of language such as a words or syllables that differ in only one component, such as a single phoneme, are called a minimal pair. Minimal pairs are widely used in language teaching. In English, typical phonemic examples are:

  • 'cat' and 'mat'
  • 'fish' and 'wish'
  • 'abortion' and 'apportion'
  • 'parole' and 'patrol'
  • 'inane' and 'innate'

Spelling can disguise the fact of a minimal pair; here are some examples of this (pronunciation as at English spellings/English phonemes):

  • 'bane' and 'boon' (bâne, boôn)
  • 'Bardot' and 'Bordeaux' (*Bardô, *Bordô)
  • 'league' and 'leak' (*lêag, lêak)
  • 'do' and 'two' (*doô, = toô)
  • 'Evans' and 'heavens' (*évnz, *hévnz)
  • 'boater' and 'voter' (*bôter, *vôater)
  • 'mosque' and 'musk' (*mósk, músk)
  • 'none' and 'known' (= nún, *nône)
  • 'cartoon' and 'Khartoum' (cartoôn, *cartoôm)
  • 'wash' and 'posh' (*wósh, pósh)
  • 'loose' and 'lose' (*loôss, *loôz)
  • 'proof' and 'prove' (proôf, *proôv)

In other languages, minimal pairs may also be identified by tone. In Mandarin, 妈 (high-level tone), 麻 (high-rising), 马 (fall-rise) and 骂 (falling) all have completely different meanings, distinguished by variations in pitch which are stored in the lexicon or speaker's 'mental dictionary' as part of the syllables (these mean 'Ma' as in 'mama', 'hemp', 'horse' and 'scold' respectively).[1]


  1. A well-known example sentence including these four meanings is: māma qi mǎ, mǎ chi má, māma mà mǎ (妈妈骑马,马吃麻,妈妈骂马 'mother rides a horse, the horse eats hemp, mother scolds the horse').