The spelling of /l/ is <l> or <ll>. The /r/ sound is spelled <r> or <rr>. Quite often a final <r> is silent so that a pair occurs only when the words are inflected or a derivation is made. For instance war and wall are not a minimal pair, but warring and walling are. Similarly odourous and odourless are minmal, although there is no word pairing with odour. Several pairs arise from contrasting an -ally adverb with a noun or adjective ending in -ary or -ery, such as beneficially/beneficiary, bestially/bestiary, finally/finery or literally/literary.
The /l/ versus /r/ contrast involves two frictionless continuants which are rarely contrasted phonemically in non-European languages although both often occur in one language in complementary distribution. As a result they are notoriously difficult for many learners and are often confused. They are also a major cause of unintended mirth, since English speakers do not recognise a problem, and many of the pairs call up ludicrous images: ‘rice’ replaced by ‘lice’ or ‘pleasant flight’ by ‘present fright’. The distinction is famously an important element in the plot of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penszance, where the hero Frederick has joined a band of pirates because his nursemaid misheard her employer's instruction to apprentice him to a pilot.
A sad mistake it was to make and doom him to a vile lot.More recently two well-known Scots have formed a minimal pair, the actor [Sean] Connery and the comedian [Billy] Connolly. As one of them is strongly in favour of Scottish independence while the other wants Scotland to remain part of the UK, one has to listen carefully to anyone who says "I agree with Connery" in case they actually said "I agree with Connolly".
I bound him to a pirate—you—instead of to a pilot.
The distinction is exploited in the phrase "Roger the lodger" which often occurs in jokes and sexual limericks. Other taboo word pairs include clap/crap.
Interesting pairs include:
The figure for the mean density is 2.8%. The set makes 344 semantic contrasts, a loading of 52%.
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John Higgins, Shaftesbury, April 2014.