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In
phonology Phonology is the branch of linguistics that studies how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds or, for sign languages, their constituent parts of signs. The term can also refer specifically to the sound or sign system of ...
, minimal pairs are pairs of
word A word is a basic element of language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communic ...
s or phrases in a particular
language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate, and may be conveyed through a variety of ...
, spoken or signed, that differ in only one phonological element, such as a
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West Midlands and the north-west ...
,
toneme Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information and to convey emph ...
or
chroneme In linguistics, a chroneme is a basic, theoretical unit of sound that can distinguish words by duration only of a vowel or consonant. The noun ''chroneme'' is derived , and the suffixed ''-eme'', which is analogous to the ''-eme'' in ''phoneme'' ...
, and have distinct meanings. They are used to demonstrate that two phones represent two separate phonemes in the language. Many phonologists in the middle part of the 20th century had a strong interest in developing techniques for discovering the phonemes of unknown languages, and in some cases, they set up writing systems for the languages. The major work of
Kenneth Pike Kenneth Lee Pike (June 9, 1912 – December 31, 2000) was an American linguist and anthropologist. He was the originator of the theory of tagmemics, the coiner of the terms "emic" and "etic" and the developer of the constructed language ...
on the subject is ''Phonemics: a technique for reducing languages to writing''. The minimal pair was an essential tool in the discovery process and was found by substitution or commutation tests. As an example for English
vowel A vowel is a syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the consonant. Vowels vary in quality, in loudness and also in quantity (len ...
s, the pair "let" + "lit" can be used to demonstrate that the phones (in let) and (in lit) actually represent distinct phonemes and . An example for English
consonants In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are and pronounced with the lips; and pronounced with the front of the tongue; and pronounced wi ...
is the minimal pair of "pat" + "bat". The following table shows other pairs demonstrating the existence of various distinct phonemes in English. All of the possible minimal pairs for any language may be set out in the same way.
Phonemic differentiation In historical linguistics, phonological change is any sound change that alters the distribution of phonemes in a language. In other words, a language develops a new system of oppositions among its phonemes. Old contrasts may disappear, new ones ...
may vary between different
dialect The term dialect (from Latin , , from the Ancient Greek word , 'discourse', from , 'through' and , 'I speak') can refer to either of two distinctly different types of linguistic phenomena: One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a ...
s of a language so a particular minimal pair in one accent may be a pair of
homophone A homophone () is a word that is pronounced the same (to varying extent) as another word but differs in meaning. A ''homophone'' may also differ in spelling. The two words may be spelled the same, for example ''rose'' (flower) and ''rose'' (p ...
s in another. That means not that one of the phonemes is absent in the homonym accent but only that it is not contrastive in the same range of contexts.


Types

In addition to the minimal pairs of vowels and consonants provided above, others may be found:


Quantity

Many languages show contrasts between long and short vowels and consonants. A distinctive difference in length is attributed by some phonologists to a unit called a
chroneme In linguistics, a chroneme is a basic, theoretical unit of sound that can distinguish words by duration only of a vowel or consonant. The noun ''chroneme'' is derived , and the suffixed ''-eme'', which is analogous to the ''-eme'' in ''phoneme'' ...
. Thus, Italian has the following minimal pair that is based on long and short : However, in such a case it is not easy to decide whether a long vowel or consonant should be treated as having an added chroneme or simply as a geminate sound with phonemes.
Classical Latin Classical Latin is the form of Literary Latin recognized as a literary standard by writers of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. It was used from 75 BC to the 3rd century AD, when it developed into Late Latin. In some later per ...
, German, some Italian dialects, almost all
Uralic languages The Uralic languages (; sometimes called Uralian languages ) form a language family of 38 languages spoken by approximately 25million people, predominantly in Northern Eurasia. The Uralic languages with the most native speakers are Hungarian ( ...
, Thai, and many other languages also have distinctive length in
vowel A vowel is a syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the consonant. Vowels vary in quality, in loudness and also in quantity (len ...
s. An example is the ''cŭ/cū'' minimal pair in the dialect that is spoken near Palmi (Calabria, Italy):


Syntactic gemination

In some languages like Italian, word-initial consonants are geminated after certain vowel-final words in the same
prosodic unit In linguistics, a prosodic unit, often called an intonation unit or intonational phrase, is a segment of speech that occurs with a single prosodic contour ( pitch and rhythm contour). The abbreviation IU is used and therefore the full form is o ...
. Sometimes, the phenomenon can create some syntactic-gemination-minimal-pairs: In the example, the graphical accent on ''dà'' is just a
diacritical mark A diacritic (also diacritical mark, diacritical point, diacritical sign, or accent) is a glyph added to a letter or to a basic glyph. The term derives from the Ancient Greek (, "distinguishing"), from (, "to distinguish"). The word ''diacriti ...
that does not change the
pronunciation Pronunciation is the way in which a word or a language is spoken. This may refer to generally agreed-upon sequences of sounds used in speaking a given word or language in a specific dialect ("correct pronunciation") or simply the way a particular ...
of the word itself. However, in some specific areas, like
Tuscany it, Toscano (man) it, Toscana (woman) , population_note = , population_blank1_title = , population_blank1 = , demographics_type1 = Citizenship , demographics1_footnotes = , demographics1_title1 = Italian , demogra ...
, both phrases are pronounced and so can be distinguished only from the context.


Tone

Minimal pairs for tone contrasts in
tone language Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information and to convey emph ...
s can be established; some writers refer to that as a contrast involving a
toneme Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – that is, to distinguish or to inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information and to convey emph ...
. For example, Kono distinguishes high tone and low tone on syllables:


Stress

Languages in which stress may occur in different positions within the word often have contrasts that can be shown in minimal pairs, as in
Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece, a country in Southern Europe: *Greeks, an ethnic group. *Greek language, a branch of the Indo-European language family. ** Proto-Greek language, the assumed last common ancestor ...
and
Spanish Spanish might refer to: * Items from or related to Spain: **Spaniards are a nation and ethnic group indigenous to Spain **Spanish language, spoken in Spain and many Latin American countries **Spanish cuisine Other places * Spanish, Ontario, Can ...
: In English stress can determine the part of speech of a word: ''insult'' as a noun is while as a verb it is . In certain cases it can also differentiate two words: ''below'' vs ''billow'' .


Juncture

Anglophones can distinguish between, for example, "great ape" and "grey tape", but phonemically, the two phrases are identical: . The difference between the two phrases, which constitute a minimal pair, is said to be one of
juncture Juncture, in linguistics, is the manner of moving (transition) between two successive syllables in speech. An important type of juncture is the suprasegmental phonemic cue by means of which a listener can distinguish between two otherwise iden ...
. At the word boundary, a "plus juncture" /+/ has been posited and said to be the factor conditioning allophones to allow distinctivity: in this example, the phrase "great ape" has an diphthong shortened by pre-fortis clipping and, since it is not syllable-initial, a with little aspiration (variously , , , , etc., depending on dialect); meanwhile in "grey tape", the has its full length and the is aspirated . Only languages with allophonic differences associated with grammatical boundaries may have juncture as a phonological element. There is disagreement over whether or not
French French (french: français(e), link=no) may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to France ** French language, which originated in France, and its various dialects and accents ** French people, a nation and ethnic group identified with Fran ...
has phonological juncture: it seems likely that the difference between, for example, "" (some little holes) and "" (some little wheels), phonemically both , is only perceptible in slow, careful speech.


Minimal sets

The principle of a simple binary opposition between the two members of a minimal pair may be extended to cover a minimal set in which a number of words differ from one another in terms of one phone in a particular position in the word. For example, the vowels , , , , of Swahili are shown to be distinct by the following set of words: ''pata'' 'hinge', ''peta'' 'bend', ''pita'' 'pass', ''pota'' 'twist', ''puta'' 'thrash'. However, establishing such sets is not always straightforward and may require very complex study of multiple oppositions as expounded by, for example, Nikolai Trubetzkoy.


Teaching

Minimal pairs were an important part of the theory of pronunciation teaching during its development in the period of
structuralist linguistics Structural linguistics, or structuralism, in linguistics, denotes schools or theories in which language is conceived as a self-contained, self-regulating semiotic system whose elements are defined by their relationship to other elements within th ...
, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, and minimal pair drills were widely used to train students to discriminate among the phonemes of the target language. These drills took the form of minimal pair word drills and minimal pair sentence drills. For example, if the focus of a lesson was on the distinction /ɪ/ versus /ɛ/, learners might be asked to signal which sound they heard as the teacher pronounced lists of words with these phonemes such as ''lid/led'', ''tin/ten'', or ''slipped/slept''. Minimal pair sentence drills consisted of paired sentences such as "He slipped on the floor/He slept on the floor." Again, learners would be asked to distinguish which of the sentences they heard as the teacher read them aloud. Another use of minimal pair drills was in pair work. Here, one member of the pair would be responsible for listening to the other member read the minimal pair word or sentence aloud and would be tasked with identifying which phoneme was being produced. In this form of classroom practice, both the skills of perception and production were practiced. Later writers have criticized the approach as being artificial and lacking in relevance to language learners' needs. However, even today minimal pair listening and production drills remain a common tool for the teaching of segmental differences. Some writers have claimed that learners are likely not to hear differences between phones if the difference is not a phonemic one. One of the objectives of contrastive analysis of languages' sound systems was to identify points of likely difficulty for language learners that would arise from differences in phoneme inventories between the native language and the target language. However, experimental evidence for this claim is hard to find, and the claim should be treated with caution.


In sign languages

In the past, signs were considered holistic forms without internal structure. However, the discovery in the mid-20th century that minimal pairs also exist in sign languages showed that sign languages have sublexical structure. Signs consist of
phonemes In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West Midlands and the north-west ...
, which are specifications for location, movement, handshape, orientation, and non-manual elements. When signs differ in only one of these specifications, they form a minimal pair. For instance, the German Sign Language sign
shoes
an
socks
are identical in form apart from their handshapes.


See also

* Minimal pairs in
Phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West Midlands and the north-west ...


References


Bibliography

*Brown, G. (1990) ''Listening to Spoken English'', Longman *Celce-Murcia, M., D. Brinton and J. Goodwin (1996) ''Teaching Pronunciation'', Cambridge University Press *Fromkin, V. and Rodman, R. (1993) ''An Introduction to Language'', Harcourt Brace Jovanovich *Jones, Daniel (1931) ' "" ' The "Word" as a phonetic entity' Le Maître Phonétique, XXXVI, pp. 60–65. *Jones, Daniel (1944) 'Chronemes and Tonemes', ''Acta Linguistica'', IV, Copenhagen, pp. 1–10. *Ladefoged, Peter (2001) ''Vowels and Consonants'', Blackwell *Ladefoged, Peter (2006) ''A Course in Phonetics'', Thomson *Lado, R. (1957) ''Linguistics across Cultures'', University of Michigan Press *Lado, R. (1961) ''Language Testing'', Longman *O'Connor, J.D. (1973) ''Phonetics'', Penguin *O'Connor, J.D and Tooley, O. (1964) 'The perceptibility of certain word-boundaries', in Abercrombie et al. (eds) ''In Honour of Daniel Jones'', Longman, pp. 171–6. *Pennington, M. (1996) ''Phonology in English Language Teaching'', Longman *Pike, Kenneth (1947) ''Phonemics'', University of Michigan Press *Roach, Peter (2009) ''English Phonetics and Phonology'', Cambridge University Press *Swadesh, M. (1934) 'The Phonemic Principle', ''Language'' vol. 10, pp. 117–29 *Trubetzkoy, N., translated by C. Baltaxe(1969) ''Principles of Phonology'', University of California Press {{DEFAULTSORT:Minimal Pair Phonology