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Minimal pair

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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').