Using Minimal Pairs

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"

Notes /i:/ — /ɪ/ schießen — schissen wider / wieder — Widder Miete — Mitte Bienen — binnen Lied — litt Miete — Mitte /i:/ — /e:/ fielen — fehlen dienen — dehnen Miele — Mehl liegen — legen /i:/ — /y:/ fielen — fühlen diene — Düne Mieder — müde German — English bieder — bidder biegen — big 'un Diele — dealer Dealer — dealer Dieb — deep vier — fear Gier — gear gieß! — geese Bibliography Ortmann, Wolf Dieter, 1975. Beispielwörter für deutsche Auswspracheübungen. Munich: Goethe-Institut.