Minimal Pair Review: Phonemes and Allophones

What is a minimal pair?

A minimal pair is a pair of words that have only one difference, such as ‘bear’ and ‘hear’. They differ only in the first letter but have the same number of letters and the same structure. Thus, they are minimal pairs.

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is a group of allophones. A different allophone is used based on the context of the phoneme.

What is an allophone?

An allophone is a variation of a phoneme, which differs based on context. For example, the aspirated ‘p’ and the unaspirated ‘p’ are each different allophones of the phoneme ‘p’.

Here is a diagram of the relationship between phonemes and allophones:

What does this mean?

When determining whether a pair of sounds are allophones or phonemes, look for minimal pairs.

If there is a minimal pair, this means that the sounds cannot be allophones of the same phoneme, because these would never be in the same context. Allophones are chosen based on context, so two allophones of the same phoneme cannot be found in the same context. These two sounds also make a difference in meaning, creating the minimal pair. Thus, these two sounds are different phonemes.

If there are no minimal pairs, look at the context of the sounds. Try to find a pattern. For example, if one of the sounds is only found at the beginning of a word and the other is found towards the end or only surrounded by consonants, these are likely two allophones of one phoneme.