What Is a Phoneme?

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In linguistics, a phoneme is the smallest sound unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinct meaning, such as the s of sing and the r of ring. Adjective: phonemic.

Phonemes are language-specific. In other words, phonemes that are functionally distinct in English (for example, /b/ and /p/) may not be so in another language. (Phonemes are customarily written between slashes, thus /b/ and /p/.) Different languages have different phonemes.

Etymology: From the Greek, "sound"

Pronunciation: FO-neem

Examples and Observations

  • "The central concept in phonology is the phoneme, which is a distinctive category of sounds that all the native speakers of a language or dialect perceive as more or less the same...[A]lthough the two [k] sounds in kicked are not identical—the first one is pronounced with more aspiration than the second—they are heard as two instances of [k] nonetheless...Since phonemes are categories rather than actual sounds, they are not tangible things; instead, they are abstract, theoretical types or groups that are only psychologically real. (In other words, we cannot hear phonemes, but we assume they exist because of how the sounds in languages pattern as they are used by speakers.)" (Thomas E. Murray, The Structure of English: Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology. Allyn and Bacon, 1995)
  • "Two points need to be stressed: (1) the most important property of a phoneme is that it contrasts with the other phonemes in the system, and hence (2) we can only speak of the phoneme of some particular speech variety (a particular accent of a particular language). Languages differ in the number of phonemes they distinguish...but every valid word in every language necessarily consists of some permissible sequence of that language's phonemes." (R.L. Trask, A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge, 2004)

An Alphabetical Analogy: Phonemes and Allophones

  • "The concepts of phoneme and allophone become clearer by analogy with the letters of the alphabet. We recognize that a symbol is a despite considerable variations in size, colour, and (to a certain extent) shape. The representation of the letter a is affected in handwriting by the preceding or following letters to which it is joined. Writers may form the letter idiosyncratically and may vary their writing according to whether they are tired or in a hurry or nervous. The variants in the visual representations are analogous to the allophones of a phoneme, and what is distinctive in contrast to other alphabetic letters is analogous to the phoneme." (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996)

Differences Between Members of a Phoneme

  • "We cannot rely on the spelling to tell us whether two sounds are members of different phonemes. For example...the words key and car begin with what we can regard as the same sound, despite the fact that one is spelled with the letter k and the other with c. But in this case, the two sounds are not exactly the same...If you whisper just the first consonants in these two words, you can probably hear the difference, and you may be able to feel that your tongue touches the roof of the mouth in a different place for each word. This example shows that there may be very subtle differences between members of a phoneme. The sounds at the beginning of key and car are slightly different, but it is not a difference that changes the meaning of a word in English. They are both members of the same phoneme." (Peter Ladefoged and Keith Johnson, A Course in Phonetics, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Phoneme?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/phoneme-word-sounds-1691621. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is a Phoneme? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/phoneme-word-sounds-1691621 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Phoneme?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/phoneme-word-sounds-1691621 (accessed March 30, 2023).