Level: Linguistics

Minimal pairs in sign language (ASL)

In phonology, minimal pairs are pairs of words in a language that differ in only one phonological unit such as a phoneme (spoken language) or a prime (signed language).

Each signed word consists of all the parameters: handshape, movement, location, palm orientation, and non-manual signal/marker. If one of these paramaters (or primes) differs in a signed word, it may result in a different meaning or sometimes meaningless (or "misspelling", metaphorically).

An example of the minimal pairs in English are: pin and bin, pat and pit, soul and soup, and so on endless. In American Sign Language (ASL), the following examples of minimal pairs are categorized into four parameters (based on the dominance of the signs).

Handshape parameter

The handshape paramater has over 40 handshapes or "handshape primes" in ASL. ASL words school (left) and impossible (right) both have the same parameters of location, movement and palm orientation but they have different handshapes.


Here is some a list of minimal pairs that contrast in handshape in ASL:

LOCK ("2") / JAIL ("5")

Location parameter

These ASL words apple (left) and onion (right) have the same handshape, movement, and palm orientation, but they have a different location which results in a different meaning.

ASL for apple ASL for onion

Here is some a list of minimal pairs that contrast in location:

NOSE / DISAPPOINTED (both repeated twice)
SO-SHORT (height) / TALL

Movement parameter

These ASL words airplane and fly have the same parameters except for the movement. The former one has the repeated movement and the latter one has one movement.

ASL for airplane ASL for fly

Another example is that these ASL words chair and to-sit have the same parameters or primes except for the movement. The former one has one movement and the latter one has the repetition.

Here is some a list of minimal pairs that contrast in movement:


Palm orientation parameter

These ASL words balance (left image) and maybe (right image) have the same parameters: handshape, location and movement, but the palm orientations of these signed words are different.

balance maybe

Here is some a list of minimal pairs with a different palm orientation:

LOOK-AT-ME / LOOK-AT-YOU and many other verb directionality (e.g. ASK-ME / ASK-YOU / ASK-her, and so on).

Non-manual marker

A well-known difference between two signs that contrast in non-manual sign (NMS) is LATE and NOT-YET ("TH" mouth morpheme).

Minimal pairs: fingerspelling exercise

Practice and develop your fingerspelling receptive skill. Watch some minimal pairs of the fingerspelled English words. Most pairs are three-letter and four-letter words with one letter difference between the two words. Choose one of the two versions: beginner and intermediate.

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Tips on improving receptive skill

Is it fingerspelling too fast? That's what you are here for. :) To train your eyes with the real world of fingerspelling in ASL signing in daily life. Use the replay button to repeat and repeat. Use the 'slow' button when needed.

Avoid looking at the individual alphabetical letters. Look at the configuration of a fingerspelled word -- its shape and movement. In language learning, one learns the patterns of language.

Practice, practice, and practice. Sharpen your receptive skill. It's about picking up the patterns of the ASL language. That works the same with listening to English words.

Related posts

Also see phonology: the smallest units of language

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