Minimal Pairs

Have you heard of Minimal Pairs? A minimal word pair consists of two words that vary by only a single sound.
For example, conta calculation and conto tale – the only difference is in the final sound (the vowel sounds represented by a and o).
Practicing with minimal pairs is a great way to perfect your pronunciation and comprehension because it teaches you to hear the subtle differences between similar sounding words. As you’ll see in the examples below, even a tiny change in pronunciation means you could be saying something much different from what you intend to say!
While we’re at it, let’s also make a distinction between minimal pairs, homophones, and homographs.

  • Homophones are words with the same exact pronunciation but different meanings
  • Minimal pairs are words that have the same pronunciation except for only a single sound, also known as a fonema (phoneme). That single sound difference is the only thing that lets you know they are two different words – they are minimally different.
  • Homographs are words that are written the same exact way but pronounced differently. Some minimal pairs can also be homographs but that’s not the norm.

Let’s dive into some minimal pairs!

Open vs. Closed Vowels

à vs. a

  • give da of
  • às to as the
  • para - para stop - to
  • falámos we spoke falamos we speak

é vs. ê

  • cathedral be
  • erro - erro I make mistakes - mistake
  • sede - sedeheadquarters - thirst
  • céu sky seu yours

ó vs. ô

  • alone sou I am
  • olho - olho I look - eye
  • pós post pôs put
  • sóis suns sois you are
  • avó grandmother avô grandfather

Oral Vowels vs. Nasal Vowels

a vs. an

  • casado married cansado tired
  • sei I know sem without

a vs. ã

  • manha slyness manhã morning
  • campanha campaign Campanhã Portuguese parish

é/ê vs. en

  • meta goal menta mint
  • peso weight penso bandage
  • cedo early sendo being
  • violeta violet violenta violent

í vs. in

  • si pronoun sim yes
  • fica stay finca stick
  • vida life vinda arrival
  • lido read lindo beautiful

ô vs. on

  • sou I am som sound
  • coxa thigh concha shell
  • roubo robbery rombo breach
  • pois since pões you put

u vs. un

  • o the um one
  • fuga escape funga sniffle
  • tuba tuba tumba tomb
  • mudo mute mundo world

Nasal Vowels vs. Nasal Vowels

en vs. an

  • entro I enter antro den
  • tento I try tanto so much

on vs. un

  • pomba dove pumba interjection

Reduced Vowels

A reduced vowel is another name for a weak sounding vowel. The examples below are not pairs but trios that only sound different because of the reduced vowel.

  • da of female de of do of male
  • fala speaks fale speak formal falo I speak
  • faça do formal face regarding faço I do
  • salta jumps salte jump formal salto jump noun
  • riscas stripes risques scratch verb riscos scratches

Consonants

ne vs. nhe

  • mana sis from 'sister' manha slyness
  • sono sleep sonho dream
  • tina bowl tinha had

ni vs. nhe

  • Hispânia Hispania Roman province Espanha Spain
  • Tânia person's name tenha have formal

se vs. ze

  • caço I hunt caso case
  • assar roast azar bad luck
  • ouça listen ousa dare

xe vs. je

  • rixa fight rija tough
  • acha thinks haja there is
  • chato boring jato jet
  • queixo chin queijo cheese

le vs. lhe

  • falo I speak falho I miss
  • rola turtle-dove rolha cork
  • mala suitcase malha mesh
  • vela candle velha old female

li vs. lhe

  • Júlio name julho July
  • gálio gallium galho twig

ve vs. fe

  • vaca cow faca knife
  • varinha wand farinha flour

 

Comments:

  • This is a very challenging lesson…….pronunciation without context……..but it is extremely rewarding.
    It forces one to concentrate on the subtle differences which exist.
    For me too it taught me some useful words which I don’t believe I had encountered before.
    PP never fails to. impress.

  • Absolutely brilliant resource and one that I will return to many times. Any chance you could add avó and avô and três and treze to the list please?

    • Sure! Great ideas! I’ll add avó and avô to the Learning Note and work on getting them added to the Unit (there will be a delay before they start showing up). Três and treze are not strict minimal pairs because more than one sound differs, but they are pronounced similarly, so I will try to find a way to include them in the unit somewhere. Thanks!

  • Olá Rui & Joel,

    acho que isso é um exercício muito difícil mas também muito importante a fim de ser fluente. Muito obrigada!

    Como tenho lidado com a aprendizagem de línguas, deparei-me com o alfabeto fonético internacional (IPA), que considero muito útil quando se trata a pronúncia de palavras. Pode acrescentar isso neste capítulo?

    • Obrigado pelo comentário. Já se pensou em usar a notação IPA, mas como muitas pessoas podem não a conhecer, optou-se por usar os exemplos em áudio. De qualquer forma, juntámos o IPA à nossa lista de sugestões/ideias a possivelmente aplicar no futuro 🙂

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