Minimal Pairs Minimal pairs are words with different meanings that have the same sounds except for one. These contrasting sounds can either be consonants or vowels. The words pin and bin are minimal pairs because they are exactly the same except for the first sound. The words read and rude are also exactly the same except for the vowel sound. The examples from above, time and dime, are also minimal pairs. In effect, words with one contrastive sound are minimal pairs. Another feature of minimal pairs is overlapping distribution. Sounds that occur in phonetic environments that are identical are said to be in overlapping distribution. The sounds of [ɪn] from pin and bin are in overlapping distribution because they occur in both words. The same is true for three and through. The sounds of [θr] is in overlapping distribution because they occur in both words as well. Free Variation Some words in English are pronounced differently by different speakers. This is most noticeable among American English speakers and British English speakers, as well as dialectal differences. This is evidenced in the ways neither, for example, can be pronounced. American English pronunciation tends to be [niðər], while British English pronunciation is [najðər]. Phones and Allophones Phonemes are not physical sounds. They are abstract mental representations of the phonological units of a language. Phones are considered to be any single speech sound of which phonemes are made. Phonemes are a family of phones regarded as a single sound and represented by the same symbol. The different phones that are the realization of a phoneme are called allophones of that phoneme. The use of allophones is not random, but rule-governed. No one is taught these rules as they are learned subconsciously when the native language is acquired. To distinguish between a phoneme and its allophones, I will use slashes // to enclose phonemes and brackets  to enclose allophones or phones. For example, [i] and [i] are allophones of the phoneme /i/; [ɪ] and [ ] are allophones of the phoneme /ɪ/. ɪɪ Complementary Distribution If two sounds are allophones of the same phoneme, they are said to be in complementary distribution. These sounds cannot occur in minimal pairs and they cannot change the meaning of otherwise identical words. If you interchange the sounds, you will only change the pronunciation of the words, not the meaning. Native speakers of the language regard the two allophones as variations of the same sound. To hear this, start to say the word cool (your lips should be pursed in anticipation of /u/ sound), but then say kill instead (with your lips still pursed.) Your pronunciation of kill should sound strange because cool and kill are pronounced with different allophones of the phoneme /k/. Nasalized vowels are allophones of the same phoneme in English. Take, for example, the sounds in bad and ban. The phoneme is /æ/, however the allophones are [æ] and [ ]. Yet in French, nasalized vowels are not allophones of the same phonemes. They are separate phonemes. æ ɪ The words beau [bo] and bon [bõ] are not in complementary distribution because they are minimal pairs and have contrasting sounds. Changing the sounds changes the meaning of the words. This is just one example of differences between languages.
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