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‡What's a phoneme?

[ foh -neem]
- noun
1. any minimal unit of speech sound that distinguishes one word from another

A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the
sound system of a language.
Phonologists have differing views of the
phoneme. Following are the two major views
considered here:
In the American structuralist tradition, a
phoneme is defined according to its allophones
and environments.
In the generative tradition, a phoneme is
defined as a set of distinctive features.
Here is a chart that compares phones and
A phone is …
A phoneme is …
One of many possible sounds in the languages of
the world.
A contrastive unit in the sound system of a
particular language.
The smallest identifiable unit found in a stream of
A minimal unit that serves to distinguish between
meanings of words.
Pronounced in a defined way.
Pronounced in one or more ways, depending on
the number of allophones.
Represented between brackets by convention.
[b], [j], [o]
Represented between slashes by convention.
/b/, /j/, /o/
Examples (English): Minimal pair
Here are examples of the phonemes /r/ and /l/
occurring in a minimal pair:
The phones [r] and [l] contrast in identical
environments and are considered to be separate
phonemes. The phonemes /r/ and /l/ serve to
distinguish the word rip from the word lip.
Examples (English): Distinctive features
Here are examples of the English phonemes /p/
and /i/ specified as sets of distinctive features:
/p/ /i/
-syllabic +consonantal -sonorant +anterior -
coronal -voice -continuant -nasal+syllabic -
consonantal +sonorant +high -low -back -round
+ATR -nasal

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