Minimal pairs are two words in a language that differ in only one phonological element. These words are used to show that a difference in the pronunciation of a word has an impact on the meaning of the words and therefore is a linguistically significant difference in pronunciation. Today I want to take a look at a few of these minimal pairs in German and use them to help you practice the small subtle differences in pronunciation that can often lead to miscommunications.
Hölle vs Höhle vs Holle
Let’s start with a pair of words that can really lead to some confusing sentences: Hölle and Höhle. One is a cave. The other is hell. To complicate matters even more, there is also a Grimm fairy tale called “Frau Holle”, which is pretty close in pronunciation, but bears no connection to these two words. You can see and hear the difference clearly in the following examples:
Frau Holle ist in der Höhle. Der Bär ist mit ihr in der Höhle.
Mother Hulda is in the cave. The bear is with her in the cave.
Frau Holle ist in der Hölle. Der Teufel ist mit ihr in der Hölle.
Mother Hulda is in hell. The devil is with her in hell.
The difference between these three words is subtle, but all has to do with the pronunciation of the first vowel. Without an umlaut and followed by two consonants, the German O requires the short pronunciation o, Frau Holle. Simply add an umlaut to get the short ö sound, œ, in “Hölle”. The H after the ö in Höhle requires us to use the long Ö sound, øː, Höhle.
Hüte vs Hütte
There is a big difference between living in Hüte and living in a Hütte. The first is the plural form of “Hut”, the German word for “hat”. The second is the singular word for a small, primitive dwelling, usually made from locally sourced materials, in English, a hut. Try these two examples to help you see and hear the difference.
Hast du meine Hüte gesehen? Ich kann sie nirgendwo finden.
Have you seen my hats? I can’t find them anywhere.
Hast du meine Hütte gesehen? Ich habe sie selbst gebaut.
Have you seen my hut? I built it myself.
In this pair we clearly see the difference between the pronunciation of a ü with one consonant and with two consonants after it. When there is only one consonant, the ü takes on a long vowel sound, yː, Hüte. When there are two consonants, we use the short vowel sound ʏ, Hütte.
Beet vs Bett
A particularly confusing combination for me is Beet vs Bett. I don’t have much of a problem with the pronunciation. The word “Beet” is pronounced with a long E sound, eː, as the combination of two E’s in a row makes this happen. The word “Bett” is pronounced with a short E sound, ɛ, as the two consonants after the vowel make this happen.
My issue is in the meanings. “Beet” in German refers to an arrangement of plants that in English we call a “garden bed”. You could also call it a “Gartenbeet”. “Bett” is the big soft usually rectangular thing you sleep in, called a bed in English. This means we have two words that are both translated with the English word “bed”. To make things more confusing, if you add an E to the end of Beet, you end up with the German word for the red root plant that some people like to eat, called a beet in English.
Ich liege in meinem Bett und esse die Beete, die im Gartenbeet gewachsen ist.
I am lying in bed and eating the beets, which grew in the garden bed.
If you mistakenly translate “garden bed” with the word “Gartenbett”, you end up with this.
Ich darf nicht mehr im Haus schlafen. Ich schlafe im Gartenbett.
I’m not allowed to sleep inside anymore. I am sleeping in the garden bed. (there is a bed in the garden that he sleeps on)
Short version: das Bett – somewhere to sleep; das Beet – an arrangement of plants in a confined area; die Beete – a vegetable
Gasse vs Kasse
Two sounds that are very close together are G and K in German. This is because they are made with the same formation in your mouth. The only difference is that G has voice and K doesn’t. You can tell this if you simply put your fingers on your throat when you say the two sounds back to back. G-K-G-K-G-K-G-K
You can practice this difference with the Minimalpaare Gasse-Kasse and Grippe-Krippe. eine Gasse is an alley. eine Kasse is a cash register. Let’s say you named an alley after a cash register. That would be Kassengasse. If you open up a shop in the alley, you would need a cash register in that alley. You could call it a Gassenkasse.
Ich arbeite an der Kasse in der Gasse. Das ist die Gassenkasse in der Kassengasse.
I work at the cash register in the alley. That is the alley cash register in the cash register alley.
Grippe vs Krippe
die Grippe is the flu. die Krippe is a crib. Krippe also often refers to a daycare center. This means if your child catches the flu while at the daycare center, you could call it the Krippengrippe.
A: Mein Sohn steckt sich mit der Grippe in der Krippe an.
My son caught the flu at the daycare center.
B: Ach. Diese Krippengrippen sind die schlimmsten.
Oh. These daycare center flus are the worst.
Barbier vs Papier
Next up we have the combination of Barbier and Papier. A Barbier is a barber. Papier is paper. Let’s say you needed to borrow a piece of paper from the barber. This would be a Barbierpapier. If this barber is made of paper and/or trims the paper hairs on a paper doll, he would be a Papierbarbier. This gives us this fun little exchange.
A: Ich brauche ein Blatt Papier. Fred der Barbier, darf ich ein Blatt Papier von dir borgen?
I need a piece of paper. Fred the Barber, may I borrow a piece of paper from you?
B: Natürlich darfst du ein Blatt Papier von mir borgen. Ich bin doch der Papierbarbier. Ich habe ein Blatt Barbierpapier hier.
Of course you can borrow a piece of paper from me. I am the paper barber after all. I have another piece of barber paper here.
A: Ich danke dir, Fred dem Papierbarbier, für das Blatt Barbierpapier.
I thank you, Fred the Barber for the piece of barber paper.
Obviously I kind of leaned into the “-ier” part, but the main focus here was the difference between P and B. Similar to the difference between G and K, the P does not use your vocal chords, but B does. B-P-B-P-B-P
Kirsche vs Kirche & Küche vs Kuchen
One of my favorite Minimalpaar that I use as an example quite often in class is the combination of Kirsche (/ˈkɪrʃə/) and Kirche (/ˈkɪʁçə/). Certain German dialects will not have much of a difference at all between these two words. If you add in another Minimalpaar Küche (/ˈkʏçə/) vs Kuchen (/ˈkuːxən/) you can have a lot of fun.
Ich glaube nicht an Gott. Ich glaube an Kirschen. Deshalb gehe ich jeden Sonntag in die Kirschenkirche. Sie kochen dort wunderbare Kuchen aus Kirschen. Diese Kirschenkirchenkirschkuchen sind einfach herrlich.
I don’t believe in God. I believe in cherries. Therefore every Sunday I go to the cherry church. They cook wonderful cakes from cherries there. These cherry church cherry cakes are simply superb.
Kiste vs Küste
The difference between the short I sound, ɪ, and the short ü sound, ʏ, is very subtle. Here to help you with this are the words Kiste and Küste.
Heute Morgen habe ich eine Kiste an der Küste gefunden. Möchtest du meine neue Küstenkiste sehen?
This morning I found a crate on the coast. Would you like to see my new coast crate?
Ofen vs offen
The difference between the long O and the short O in German can be illustrated with the words Ofen (/ˈoːfən/) and offen (/ˈʔɔfɱ̩/). For example:
Hast du den Ofen offen gelassen? Hier ist es ungemütlich warm. Ein offener Ofen macht die ganze Wohnung heiß.
Did you leave the oven open? It is uncomfortably warm here. An open oven makes the entire apartment hot.
Schreck vs schräg vs Shrek
I mentioned in my Beginner German course that the Ä sound is often very close if not identical to the E sound in German. Where they differ, however is the difference between the short E and the long Ä. For example: Schreck (/ʃʀɛk/) is fear or fright. Schräg (/ʃʁɛːk/) is skewed, slanted or weird. For an added bonus everyone’s favorite ogre is Shrek (/ʃɹɛk/), which is pretty close to Schreck, but not quite, as it simply imitates the English pronunciation with German phonetics.
Shrek findet es schräg, einen Schreck zu bekommen.
Shrek finds it weird to receive a scare.
Tier vs Tür
Sometimes the diphthong or combination of vowels IE, iː, can sound incredibly similar to the long Ü sound, yː. While they are close, they are not the same. See if you can spot the difference with the words Tier (/tiːɐ̯/) and Tür (/tyːr/) in the following examples.
Der Türmacher mag Tiere. Er installiert eine Tiertür, damit das Tier durch die Tür kommen kann, ohne dass der Türmacher, die Tür für das Tier öffnen muss.
The door maker likes animals. He installs an animal door, so that the animal can come through the door without the door maker having to open the door for the animal.
Uhr vs Ohr
The last example for today is the difference between the long U, uː, in Uhr (/uːr/) and the long O, oː, in Ohr (/oːr/).
Ich habe eine Uhr in meinem Ohr. Diese ist meine Ohrenuhr.
I have a clock in my ear. This is my ear clock.