MINIMAL PAIR. In PHONETICS, a pair of words that differ in one PHONEME such as pin and bin /pɪn, bɪn/ or rich and wretch /rɪtʃ, rɛtʃ/. Sick and sink are a minimal pair, the latter having an extra phoneme; slink and shrink are not minimal, as they differ in two phonemes. Minimal pairs are used in order to ascertain the phonemes of a LANGUAGE or DIALECT. Some differences are however phonetic rather than phonemic: for example, the differences in the vowels of feed and feel can be ascribed to the influence of the following consonants, and so the vowels are allophones of the same phoneme and not independent phonemes. The contrasting vowels of bead and bid, on the other hand, are in the same environment (in this instance, preceded by /b/ and followed by /d/), and must therefore belong to different phonemes. Pairs that are different in one dialect may be identical in another: for example, cod and cawed contrast in RP, but are identical in some Irish dialects. See OPPOSITION.
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