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What is a phoneme?

 

Definition
 

A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.

Discussion
 

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.
Comparison
 

Here is a chart that compares phones and phonemes:

 

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 speech.

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.

Example:

[b], [j], [o]

Represented between slashes by convention.

Example:

/b/, /j/, /o/

Examples (English): Minimal pair
 

Here are examples of the phonemes /r/ and /l/ occurring in a minimal pair:

 
  • rip
  • lip
 

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

See also
 
Sources
 

Burquest and Payne 1993

 

Hyman 1975


Context for this page:

Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 5.0 published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 2003. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 5 January 2004

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