Tuesday, 12 February 2013

a minimal linguistic unit

credit: cordelia mclellan
This very short blog is about


What characterises a minimal père in the phonological sense of the term?
  1. Two words with distinct meanings.
  2. They differ by one sound feature only.
  3. This sound feature must occur in the same position of each word.
So cellar - feller form a minimal pair, but seller - speller, seller - cellar or cellars - zealous (in hyporhotic accents) do not.  ‘Incense – in’cense or ‘discourse – dis’course are true stress minimal pairs (see also here), but 'present - pre'sent are not.

For some delimitation problems related to minimal pairs see John Higgins's pages on the topic. On his webpages you find a comprehensive list of minimal pairs sorted by vowels and consonants. To give you an idea, here's a screenshot of the table for consonant pairs:

credit: John Higgins


  1. But seller/speller really are a minimal pair. The contrasting feature is [null]/p . Higgins includes this pair in his word list.

  2. Accepting your solution would lead to the somewhat weird situation to have a null phoneme with a meaning-distinguishing function, wouldn't it? Can nothingness exist? A deeply philosophical question ...