A minimal pair is a set of two words which are distinguished by a single sound. For example, Schein [ʃaɪn] "appearance" and Bein [baɪn] "leg" are distinguished by [ʃ] and [b]. Sounds which can be substituted in this way to produce words with different meanings are commonly called phonemes, and this process of changing the meaning of a word by changing a single sound, often called commutation, is used in structural analysis to discover the phonemes of a language.
Minimal pairs can be used in teaching to improve learners' pronunciation and to extend their vocabulary.
Standard German vowels can usefully be seen as pairs - one member of the pair is tense and is therefore either fronted or retracted with respect to the other pair which tends to be more centralised.
|Tense||Lax and Centralised|
|[i:] as in Bienen [bi:nən] "bees"||[ɪ] as in binnen [bɪnən] "within"|
|[e:] as in beten [be:tən] "to pray"||[ɛ] as in Betten [bɛtən] "beds"|
|[u:] as in Buße [bu:sə] "penance"||[ʊ] as in Busse [bʊsə] "buses"|
|[o:] as in wohne [vo:nə] "(I) live"||[ɔ] as in Wonne [vɔnə] "bliss"|
|[y:] as in Hüte [hy:tə] "hats"||[ʏ] as in Hütte [hʏtə] "hut"|
|[ø:] as in Höhle [hø:lə] "cave"||[œ] as in Hölle [hœlə] "hell"|
|[a:] as in lahm [la:m] "lame"||[a] as in Lamm [lam] "lamb"|