Thursday, 18 November 2010

distinguish bad manners from bed manners

No - this blog entry is not about bad bediquette such as hogging double duvets in a double bed. Bad bed manners can be a threat to an otherwise happy marriage, as the Daily Mail reported in March 2010. As I'm not a trained marriage counsellor I shall refrain from commenting on such marital problems.
This entry, however, is about the vowels in bad and bed, had or head and similar words.The distinction between /e/ and /æ/ is notoriously difficult for German students of English to produce although it's rather easy to discriminate.
I carried out a tiny experiment with 38 German students of English, who attended my phonetics classes in 2010, an experiment, in which I made them listen to eight minimal pair sentences of the type:
I hope you will land/lend me a fish.
They heard one member of such a pair of sentences only, but saw both on a piece of paper. They were supposed to tick the one they believed to have heard.
Here are the sentences (the colour green marks the one they heard):
  1. You can't say dad/dead on a gravestone
  2. Charles confesses: I love Alan/Ellen
  3. Will the man/men come?
  4. This pan/pen leaks
  5. They bought a lot of jams/gems from the specialty shop
  6. He was sanding/sending some furniture when I called
  7. I like Barry's/berries best
  8. I hope you will land/lend me a fish
And these are the results in per cent:
  1. 71/29
  2. 16/84
  3. 21/79
  4. 05/95
  5. 78/22
  6. 82/18
  7. 92/08
  8. 87/13
BTW: It's a real eye-opener - sorry, ear-opener - to many a German student if such minimal pair sentences are used in an exercise: Student A reads out one of the two sentences and student B provides the appropriate answer. Here's an example:

student A OOstudent B
(a)Will the men come?OO I haven't invited them
(b)Will the man come?OO He's on his way here
So much for the auditory side of these two vowels. Articulatory aspects will be dealt with in a future blog entry.

PS: The sentences were taken from H. Eckert & W. Barry (2005) and  J.D. Bowen (1975). I'm always on the lookout for more minimal pair sentences. I'd be most grateful if you would post some more here.


  1. (1) We had Brad/bread for lunch.
    (2) It's easy to get fet/fatter (no minimal pair in general American).

  2. I can't find the cattle/kettle.
    The letter/latter might arrive tomorrow.

  3. #2 must read:
    (2) It's easy to get feta/fatter

  4. In response to your appeal for more examples of epsilon/ash contrasts may I draw your and your readers’ attention to my Phonetiblog #004 (at on The Bleck Hendbeg Problem (or ‘Syndrome’ if you prefer).

  5. @JWL: belly-dancer versus ballet-dancer is a minimal pair my students will appreciate