Minimal pairs

A minimal pair is a pair of words with ONE phonemic difference only.

In order to decide whether a pair of words is a minimal pair or not, you need to know what sounds make up the word, and you need to IGNORE the word's spelling.
If you are a native English speaker, you may find this easy. Most people have to look up the words in a pronunciation dictionary.

This can best be shown with examples.

Spelling   Pronunciation  
cat - bat   Yes, a minimal pair!   -     only k and b are different
wide - wise Yes, a minimal pair!   - only d and z are different
 ride - road Yes, a minimal pair! - only and are different. Remember, these are two different diphthongs. Diphthongs are single phonemes, although they are written with two symbols.
kite - night Yes, a minimal pair! - only k and n are different
take - steak Yes, a minimal pair! - This is a minimal pair because s and "nothing" are different. This means than minimal pairs can also be made if one of the "sounds" is actually zero!
maid - made No, not a minimal pair - The two words are the same exactly.
wise - rice No, not a minimal pair - There are TWO differences in theses words
base - phase No, not a minimal pair - There are TWO differences in theses words (be very careful to distinguish s and z - you will need a dictionary mort of the time!)
caught - cot Yes, a minimal pair in RP, but no, not in some other accents - Some Scottish and American accents will pronounce these words the same.

Making minimal pairs is a method that can be used to work out whether two different sounds in a certain language are allophones or phonemes. For instance, we can see that l and r are different phonemes by making the minimal pair:

lime - rhyme - l and r can distinguish between words: they are distinctive for the meaning of the word

But the two types of English /l/ - light and dark - cannot make a minimal pair, because the phonological rules state that can only appear in the word where cannot appear. In some languages they CAN make minimal pairs.

Sometimes we cannot make a minimal pair to show different phonemes, simply becasue there are no words that fit. When this happens, we can usually find MINIMAL CONTEXTS instead. Thus you cannot find a minimal pair to show that and are different phonemes. But we can find a minimal context like this:

fission - vision - and are in different CONTEXTS although fission and vision are not minimal pairs.


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