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What Are Minimal Pairs?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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Phonology practitioners study the collective sounds individuals produce in spoken language. Minimal pairs represent an effective starting point for understanding phonological principles. These couplets consist of two words in which only one individual sound — or phoneme — in the words differs. Examples may include words with different starting or ending letters that are otherwise the same. Variations may occur among different languages and even different dialects of the same language.

An individual performs several actions that cause different sounds. Therefore, even words that appear to have the same lettering structure may still function as minimal pairs. For example, in the English language, the word ‘record’ can have two distinct meanings and pronunciations. By changing the pronunciation of the last vowel in the word, ‘record’ may either refer to an object that stores data or to the process of copying and preserving material in a written or electronic format.

The stress or duration placed on certain sounds is thus one example of creating a minimal pair. A type of phoneme reliant on pitch or inflection is known as a toneme, whereas a sound reliant on length of the utterance is called a chroneme. Individuals also create different individual sounds by subtly moving their lips in certain directions, by tightening or relaxing the throat, or by placing the tongue in different areas of the mouth. All of these aspects, as well as small spelling differences in words, create most minimal pairs.

In some cases, however, the identity of a minimal pair is dependent on location. Regional accents can make some words in a language minimal pairs in one area and non-minimal pairs in other areas. Take the words ‘pen’ and ‘pin’ in the American form of English. In certain American dialects, the middle letter of these words has the same pronunciation, while others pronounce the middle portion of the words slightly differently. As such, the words work as minimal pairs only in the dialects where the middle letters have different pronunciations.

Minimal pair rules can also vary widely among different languages. Individual letters may not have the same pronunciation among all languages, and some languages use symbols in place of letters, each with their own set of sounds. Various other regional additions such as accent symbols can also change the pronunciation of words. Minimal pairs may prove to be a valuable tool for individuals learning the subtle sound variations of a new language. Some clinicians also use minimal pair therapy to help individuals with speech disorders gain a basic foundation for recognizing and understanding sounds.

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