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ASL: minimal pairs:

In American Sign Language, "minimal pairs" are two signs that share all but one articulatory feature.

In more simple words, a minimal pair is two signs that are almost the same but have one small difference in the way they are signed.

ASL minimal pairs typically differ in one of these five characteristics:

1. handshape

2. location

3. orientation

4. movement

5. non-manual markers (such as facial expressions, mouth movements, eyebrow position, and other physical aspects of a sign other than the hand or hands).

However ASL minimal pairs can have more nuanced or subtle differences as well, including:

path [this is a subset of movement]

repetition [this is a subset of movement]

force (how much force is involved) [this is a subset of movement]

order (the starting and ending location of the segments of the sign) [this is a subset of location]

duration (how long it takes you to do the sign)

size (how large or small the sign is produced)


handedness (a left-handed signer vs right-handed signer)

number of hands used (Example CAT-[one-hand-version] vs CAT-[two-handed-version]

And any "other" small difference in production that results in a typical skilled language user perceiving the two signs as being meaningfully different.



Janet:  Hi there.... would it be possible to chat with you and go over some sign language "minimal pairs" for my sign language college class?  Or can I IM the info to you?  My name is Janet ______.

Dr. Bill:  Sure go ahead

JANET:  The first set I'm working on have the same handshape, movement and location but have a different palm orientation:


Can you think of any others?  I have three other parameter sets as well but I would prefer to do one at a time.  Is that ok?

Dr. Bill:  Which college do you attend?

JANET:  Columbus state community college, [Columbus, Ohio]

Dr. Bill:  Ah, I see, and your teacher won't help you with this stuff or what?

JANET:  No and I've been looking online for info and haven't found much.  I'm really rusty with my signing so I'm trying to figure out if my pairs are really ok.  I have to do four sets with one parameter of each set being different and everything else remaining the same.

Dr. Bill:  Okay, the ones you have listed are good.
Dr. Bill:  Except perhaps "choose/pick"
Dr. Bill:  Unless you are saying one is an "F" hand and the other is an 8 hand?

JANET:  Pick is up and down movement while choose is back and forth movement with everything else being the same

Dr. Bill:  Ah...I see yah...the upward-movement version of "pick one of these" vs. the more casual movement of "select from available options in front of you."
Dr. Bill:  if I were you I'd grab a dictionary and just flip through it until I found signs that work for your project.

JANET:  I've already done that and I'm just looking for some confirmations

Dr. Bill:  k
Dr. Bill:  let me look at your list again...hd
JANET:  So, if that group looks ok how about this one…palm orientation, movement and location are the same but handshape is different:

pig/ dirty
apple/ candy


Dr. Bill:  um, SAD and CRY are debatable
Dr. Bill:  could also debate PIG and DIRTY--the movement is a bit different
Dr. Bill:  the signs DIRTY and PIG both use could be called "internal wiggle" but the movement itself is different.
Dr. Bill:  APPLE and CANDY are solid choices  
Dr. Bill:  WHITE/LIKE are good

Dr. Bill:  how about:  
Dr. Bill:  rooster / father
Dr. Bill:  me / my
Dr. Bill:  home / yesterday

JANET:  handshape, palm orientation and movement are the same while location is different --

Dr. Bill:  um cute /sweet are same location in my book (different handshape). I have though seen some people do a version of "candy" on the cheek that uses the "U" handshape.  For CANDY, I prefer to twist an index finger on my cheek. Heh. Also summer and dry work well as a location-based minimal pair -- but "ugly" often has an added facial expression and thus is debatable as a minimal pair with the other two (summer and dry).

JANET:  movement being different


What do you think?

Dr. Bill:  coffee/make  good
must/need debatable but sometimes yes sometimes no (depending on inflection / intensity)
think/wonder yah
thirsty/swallow debatable regarding palm orientation
pain/opposite yah (but debatable -- the twist version of pain obviously uses a lot of different palm orientations)
wait/fire (debatable since both the movement and the palm orientation -- even somewhat the location -- are different)
cheese/paper yah
lousy/bug  yes (but you could argue that since lousy moves to a new ending location there is a location difference)
chocolate/church yes
disappear/start debatable location
break/change debatable due to two differences (handshape and movement).

Dr. Bill:  okay well looks like you will do well enough to pass eh?  I gotta jam...anything else?

JANET:  no but thanks...

Dr. Bill:  good luck and have a nice evening.

JANET:  u2

Dr. Bill:  bye

JANET:  thanks again

Dr. Bill:  :) welcome bye



Also see "Parameter Grouping"

More discussion:

The topic of "minimal pairs" came up on an online group.
One of the Deaf, experienced moderators question whether or not certain signs in a list of minimal pairs were actually minimal pairs.

For example "UGLY" and "SUMMER."

Are those really minimal pairs?

I reckon we could perhaps get into the concept that sometimes UGLY is done without a facial expression (also sometimes referred to as a non-manual marker or NMM). Thus we have a marked UGLY (using a facial expression) and an unmarked UGLY (using a neutral face).

(Lots of folks might knee jerk react to the above statement because they've been taught (by me and others) that the right way to do ugly is to have an ugly expression. Yet upon further reflection and examination we find an unmarked version exists. Someday -- maybe even today as a result of this discussion) I will probably add that as a note to my "ugly" page.)

If so we could say that:

The unmarked version of UGLY and the sign for SUMMER are minimal pairs.

The marked version of UGLY and the sign for SUMMER are "not" minimal pairs.

Often teachers parrot what we have been taught without wrapping our minds around it and doing our own thinking. Sometimes we just grab any general quick example that "kind of" works (without actually examining it up close and realizing it doesn't actually work).
Sometimes it is just lack of experience.
Sometimes it is fear of questioning "authority."
Sometimes it is lack of access to or unfamiliarity with the "tools" involved with the discussion.

You'll note that my wife, Bee Vicars is amazingly smart and experienced in signing and the Deaf world (and even holds an MFA in creative writing so she is no slouch in English either!) but when someone starts slinging around linguistic terms she doubts herself.

She will have a gut level feeling but doesn't quite feel comfortable about challenging someone's claim or assertion due to assuming the other person knows more about the topic than she does -- even when all that is going on is someone is making claims using big words and is only 90% on target, has covered only part of the topic, or is speaking in absolutes (claiming that this is the way it is "period") -- instead of allowing for "additional" points or additional things to be considered.

Almost all of us are guilty of it (me included) at some point or another. Thus it is nice to come to a discussion forum and have people question us once in a while or ask, "Well then what about [insert conflicting opinion here]."

For example, in the (supposed) list of minimal pairs above we see: SCHOOL / PROOF.

Yet at the gut level Bee knows there are multiple differences (not just the palm-orientation) between those two signs:
1. palm orientation
2. repetition
3. speed
4. force
5. specific area of contact (proof tends to use slightly more of the fingers of the dominant hand coming down onto the non-dominant palm whereas "school" tends to hang the fingers more off the other hand. Perhaps the difference in "location of contact" is only an inch -- but it is there.
6. specific small differences in the handshape ("proof" tends to be a tighter handshape of the dominant hand versus the often somewhat loose handshape of the sign for "school").

All of these differences are obvious to Bee in the blink of an eye and contradict at a subconscious level the general claim that the signs SCHOOL and PROOF only have one small difference -- thus its inclusion in the overall list of "examples" is enough to cause doubt yet without being able to explain why.

Thus causing Adam to question "are these all minimal pairs" and Bee to ask for more opinions.


Are CAR and WHICH a "minimal pair?"

Well, some people might feel that more than is more one difference in the way the signs CAR and WHICH are signed.
1. handshape (A vs S)
2. movement path (CAR might use somewhat of a more circular movement path depending on who is signing it and their level of register (casual vs formal) or their speed.
3. overall size of the sign / WHICH tends to be rather large / if you sign CAR large it tends to become DRIVE and adopt more of a circular movement path

So, if you take a relaxed, at a distance approach to the comparison you could call CAR / WHICH a minimal pair. However if you zoom in tight and compare the signs you might decide they are not minimal pairs.

It is sort of like seeing two people from far away: They are holding up their right hands -- they are doing the same thing.

Then seeing those same people from closer up: One is holding up a 4-hand and the other is holding up a 5-hand -- they are doing something different

The change between doing the same thing and doing something different was a result of the closeness of inspection.
This same principle applies to many minimal pairs. Taken at a general glance two signs might be thought of as having only one small difference. Then when scrutinized -- additional differences become evident and our earlier label of "minimal pair" needs to be changed to "almost a minimal pair."*

*Depending on how picky you want to be" and "how many people you can get to agree with you."



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