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Minimal pairs

: What units of the language shall we utilize to isolate these things: follow the principle of eliminating as many variables as possible, and take the shortest units we can find; units which differ in only one detail. Pairs of words or morphemes that differ minimally from each other: MINIMAL PAIRS.

For example: pete, pit, pate, pet pat, pot, boat, put boot, putt, pout, bite, boit?. (isolates the vowels and diphthongs).

pot, cot, tot, dot, *bot, got, sot, *zot, rot, lot, *mot, not, *fot, *vot

pat, cat, tat, *dat, bat, gat, sat, *zat, rat, ?lat, mat, gnat, fat, vat,

Notice we cannot find a complete set of minimal pairs to illustrate each sound, but even non-words like *zot are recognizable: Mott could be a person's name, or a brand name (Mott's Apple Juice) or an acronym (Multilingual Old Trekkers, e.g.) or an onomatopoeic word.

So minimal pair isolation is a TOOL we can use; it is not a principle, it is a shortcut method that can help us find the minimal distinctions of the language; if we made charts and graphs we would discover that the minimal pairs show contrasts in identical environments. We are not looking for the minimal pairs as an end in themselves, but the minimal phonological distinctions, so as to eventually isolate the phonemic contrasts, or phonemic distinctions, and establish the minimal phonemic inventory for the language in question.

Harold Schiffman
Fri Jan 17 09:48:04 EST 1997