I was driving home the other day, and I started thinking about minimal pairs. Roughly speaking, a minimal pair is a pair of words that differ by one perceptually distinct sound. For example, “bat” and “bad”.
Now, these aren’t universal across languages, or even within the same language. Some people pronounce “cot” and “caught” identically, others such as I do not. Even so, they are useful in determining what a language or dialect uses as phonemes, the basic units of sound.
Naturally, you can go beyond pairs and find larger sets of words which are mutually distinct in one place. To the pair of “cot” and “caught”, one could add “cat” and “coot”, for example, and possibly even “kite” and “Kate”, depending on whether you count diphthongs as one vowel or two.
(This is where I should point out that I’m not a linguist. I studied some linguistics in college, and I follow a linguistics blog or two today, but I can’t claim any particular expertise beyond that of an interested amateur.)
As I drove, I realized that you can take almost any English vowel, put it between a “b” and a “t”, and get a word. Here’s what I came up with:
- beet [bit]
- bit [bɪt]
- bait [beɪt]
- bet [bɛt]
- bat [bæt]
- bite [baɪt]
- bout [baʊt]
- bot [bɑt]
- bought [bɔt]
- boat [boʊt]
- but [bʌt]
- boot [but]
(Wikipedia has a good IPA chart for English that should explain the phonetic spellings I’m using. Note that I’m transcribing using the general American accent, so British and Australian readers will pronounce some of these words differently.)
That’s quite a few vowels—even if you don’t distinguish “bot” and “bought”. What’s more, that doesn’t even exhaust English’s vowel repertoire: there are no words pronounced [bʊt] (the sound from “book”) or [bɔɪt] (the sound from “boy”).
(One might also argue that “Bert” [bɝt] should be on the list. I don’t know enough phonetics to say whether that’s considered a distinct sound or a combination of [ɛ] and [ɹ].)
I don’t bring this up for any particular reason, except that I thought it was neat. If anyone reading this knows of a larger set of monosyllables which differ only by a single vowel, feel free to e-mail.