Ethnographer.com

26May/091

Minimal Pairs in the Popular Imagination

Seems unlikely, right?  But this hilarious recurring skit from Saturday Night Live nicely foregrounds the concept of the minimal pair in phonemics and gives an illustration of one of the difficulties of learning a new language--simply learning to hear the right sounds.  That such minimal distinctions could exist without being obvious to a listener is both baffling and, in this example, a bit of an affront: 

Here, of course, since the 'natives' are effete--possibly European--art dealers, their insistence on virtually imperceptible phonemic distinctions and inability to recognize more obvious contrasts, is emblematic of a type of person, one given to elitism and aesthetic abandon.   The asymmetry of the interactions turns this hyperbolic instance of the universally shared incapacity to recognize unfamiliar phonemic distinctions into an identity indexical.   It's an amusingly observant skit with the possible side-effect of marginalizing as elitist those earnestly attempting to learn to listen.