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Homophones are two words with the same sound, but different meaning, like red and read (the past tense of to read ).

  • Is there a linguistic term which refers to two or more words which have almost the same, but not quite the same sound? I am particularly referring to the situation which happens in Chinese, in which two words have a similar sound, and would even have the same spelling in IPA, but different tone, for example (dao) which has a falling tone and (dao) which falls, then rises, so they are nearly alike in pronunciation, not not identical.

  • Is there a broader linguistic term which both includes homophones and these “almost-homophones”?

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Can you give an example or two of pairs of words you consider almost homonyms? Do you mean a near rhyme? – JLG Aug 31 '12 at 14:04
An English-language example of the phenomenon you describe in Chinese might be a word that differs only in stress (and thus, pitch), such as record as a noun versus record as a verb. – tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 14:32
One example of tones distinguishing words in (American) English is "valet" vs. "valley." Depending on which syllable you emphasize, you get one word or the other (almost). – Matt Chambers Oct 15 '14 at 4:28
Related: What word means “almost a homophobe”? – Volker Siegel Jun 12 '15 at 9:35
up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is a linguistic term which refers to two or more words which have almost the same, but not quite the same sound. It has nothing to do with the spelling, however.

It's a term for the two words, as a pair. Beat [bit] and bit [bɪt] , for example, which differ only in their vowels - tense high front [i] and lax high front [ɪ] -- are said to be a Minimal Pair for the two sounds that differ.

Discovery of a minimal pair is evidence that the two sounds that differ are in contrast, not in Complementary Distribution. That means that native speakers have to routinely distinguish them because they are the only way they could tell the difference between the two words.

So they are therefore separate Phonemes. I.e, you can write them not just phonetically as [i] and [ɪ], but phonemically, as /i/ and /ɪ/. Knowing this is important to linguists (and occasionally interesting to others).

That's how we know there are around fourteen vowels in English, instead of the five Middle English "vowel letters" we're stuck with now -- in Middle English there were far fewer, but all of them came in two lengths, which were wiped out by the Great Vowel Shift. We have minimal pairs for all of them.

The simplest set of minimal pairs for English vowels that I know of in my American dialect is

beat /i/, bit /ɪ/, bait /e/, bet /ɛ/, bat /æ/, bought /ɔ/, but /ə/

bot /a/, boat /o/, put /ʊ/, boot /u/, bite /ay/, bout /aw/

There is no English word *[bʊt], but Luke and look are a minimal pair for them. /oy/ doesn't occur in this frame, but there are minimal pairs for all three diphthongs as well -- buy, boy, bough, for instance.

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You will find [bʊt] in north England, 'north' meaning roughly north of Birmingham. It is a land where the FOOT vowel rules, and the STRUT vowel fears to tread, and /bʌt/ becomes /bʊt/. – Roaring Fish Aug 31 '12 at 15:10
British Englishes, especially Northern ones, are another kettle of vowels entirely. There's far more phonetic variation in any hundred mile square of Great Britain than there is in all of North America. They've simply been speaking English so much longer there. – John Lawler Aug 31 '12 at 16:48
@John Lawler: By rights that should give us Brits a better "ear" for dialects, since we should hear more of them, more often. – FumbleFingers Dec 1 '12 at 2:52
Well, you live there, so you can tell. I don't, so I can't. – John Lawler Dec 1 '12 at 3:07

Yes, "quasi-homophones". "Quasi" means "seeming or seemingly; nearly". As a prefix it's generally hyphenated. It's pronunced /kwah-zee/.

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Except when it's pronounced "kway-zye", as in the first pronunciation given by Merriam-Webster merriam-webster.com/dictionary/quasi – nohat Aug 31 '12 at 15:13
@nohat: I think that’s a typo for [kwazaɪ], because [kwɛɪzaɪ] sounds hilarious. Unless you were joking, in which case I’m just being obtuse. :P – Jon Purdy Aug 31 '12 at 18:17
@Jon did you listen to the audio? KWAY-zye is the first pronunciation given by not just Merriam-Webster, but all the online dictionaries I checked: dictionary.com, which has Random House and Collins, and thefreedictionary.com, which has American Heritage. Same with Cambridge and Oxford – nohat Aug 31 '12 at 20:15
@nohat: Next you’ll tell me that lingerie is pronounced langeray. :( – Jon Purdy Sep 1 '12 at 0:45

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