I already know of two non-homograph ones: insight and billow.

Insight /ˈɪnsʌɪt/ is phonemically identical to incite /ɪn'sʌɪt/ except for where the stress falls (first syllable in insight, second syllable in incite). This means the words can still be told apart when spoken, even though all the consonants and vowels are the same.

Billow /ˈbɪləʊ/ and below /bɪ'ləʊ/ similarly differ only by stress in standard British and American English pronunciation (as is supported by the phonemic transcriptions in dictionaries I've checked) which is why it counts for the purposes of this question, even though in some accents the unstressed vowel in below might be reduced for example.

Because the many homographs, especially initial-stress-derived nouns, that are distinguished only by stress can be found among this large list on Wikipedia, I am particularly interested in non-homograph pairs (like insight/incite, or below/billow, but not project/project).

Are there other pairs of words in English that have different spellings and different meanings, and can only be told apart in speech because they have different lexical stress? Is there already available a collection of examples of the importance of lexical stress in English?

1 Answer 1


It seems when you say "minimal pair" you mean underlying forms that differ only by choice of A vs B, eliminating rule-predictable properties. The initial vowels of "below" and "bellow" are also different at least in US English ([bəˈlɔʊ, ˈbɛlɔʊ]. The standard definition of "minimal pair" is based exclusively on the surface form, where all of the allophonic rules have applied, and the phonemic form is what you get when you undo the allophonic rules. Mixing surface-oriented characteristics and underlying forms is not standard, so I call into question your third paragraph about "below". The problem is that the noun / verb stress distinction in "pervert" is itself rule-governed – stress location is not necessarily in the underlying forms.

Under the classical surface-oriented definition of minimal pair, there are unrelated word pairs like insight / incite that are true minimal pairs, also "pervert, permit, torment, increase" where the noun is derivable from the verb (this is discussed extensively in SPE). Because of vowel reduction, which neutralizes unstressed vowels in open syllables to schwa, you can't include "remit (research, project". Also, there is a difference on the second syllable between "ˈpermit" and "Kermit", where the noun "permit" has secondary stress on the final vowel but "Kermit" does not". This is a characteristic of the noun-verb alternation, that the nouns have two stresses, so strictly speaking they are not minimal, there are two differences.

This is not to say that one cannot devise a list of such words and make a reasonable defense of the list, but in doing so you have to first explain what notion of "minimal pair" you are operating with and second you need to address the status of secondary stress. If you deny that there is secondary stress, then "pervert, torment" are good examples, but they can only be examples in the surface-oriented theory of minimal pair (since stress location differences come from a rule).

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    Despite the mention of ‘phonemically identical’, the actual question seems to me to be more phonetic than phonemic, mostly really talking about what actual are surface forms. Note that it mentions billow, not bellow, and while there is of course much variation in the realisation of the first vowel, to many speakers, below is indeed [bɪˈləʊ] rather than [bəˈləʊ], matching billow [ˈbɪləʊ] exactly except for stress. Also, permit (n.) and Kermit have exactly the same stress pattern to me, though some other similar nouns do have the secondary stress (e.g., remit). Dec 9, 2021 at 16:43
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    I make no claims about UK English vowel quality, so my transcription [bəˈlɔʊ] is not for UK English. Generally speaking, I find questions about the phonetic and phonological details of "English" to be futile. Even in US English, there is variation in the noun permit w.r.t. what stress is on the final syllable.
    – user6726
    Dec 9, 2021 at 18:39
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    You've used "bellow". The OP is talking about "billow". Never the twain shall meet. [Given the neutralisation of KIT and schwa in US English, it's at leas possible that "below" and "billow" share the same phonemes, presumably] Not my dv, btw. May 8, 2022 at 21:05
  • For many USers, below is at most one and a half syllables, with the schwa being treated as epenthetic and therefore optionally deletable. I think it's because below is a common preposition and prepositions wear out fast (and also because /bl/ is a common initial cluster).
    – jlawler
    Oct 6, 2022 at 14:56

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