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A speech sound (phone) that is contrastive, that is, is perceived as being different from all other speech sounds.



the basic unit in the sound system of a language; the smallest element that can be isolated by means of linear segmentation of speech. The phoneme is not the simplest element of speech, since it consists of simultaneously existing features. Nor is it solely an acoustic sound, as was believed by many 19th-century linguists. The phoneme is not the concept of a sound or a sound’s psychic equivalent, as affirmed in early works by I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay and in works by L. V. Shcherba, T. Benni, and N. S. Trubetskoi. It is not a group of related sounds (D. Jones), a sound type (Shcherba), a bundle of features (L. Bloomfield, R. Jakobson, and M. Halle), or a fiction (W. Twaddell). The phoneme is first and foremost a part of a morpheme, without which the concept of the phoneme is meaningless.

The features of a phoneme may be distinctive or nondistinctive (integral). Phonemes form oppositions by means of distinctive features. The positions in which phonemes contrast, that is, in which their distinctive features are manifested, are called strong, as in som (“sheatfish”) and sam (“self,” masculine form). The positions in which phonemes do not contrast, or in which they merge or are neutralized, are called weak, as in somá (genitive singular of som) and samá (feminine form of sam). In strong position a phoneme has a semasiological, or significative function; that is, it distinguishes morphemes and words. In weak position this function is lost. In weak position the phoneme variants are apparent, and in strong position the basic form of the phoneme within the aggregate of the phoneme’s distinctive features is apparent. A phoneme may have variants (allophones) conditioned by the linguistic environment: the words mat (“checkmate”), mat’ (“mother”), miat (“crumpled”), and miat’ (“to crumple”) have four variants of the phoneme [a].

In cases when there is no strong position for a phoneme variant to occupy, a hyperphoneme (group phoneme) appears. This happens when a certain aggregate of phonemes may be differentiated but when its individual phonemes cannot be distinguished. For example, in the word sobaka (“dog”) the hyperphoneme o/a appears in the first syllable, but this hyperphoneme’s exact phonemic composition cannot be verified phonetically. Phonemes are most readily identified in pairs of morphemes and of words in which the differentiation is based on a single phoneme, as in brat’ (“to take”)–vrat’ (“to lie”) and pil (“he drank”)–shil (“he sewed”). The presence or absence of a phoneme can also distinguish morphemes and words, as in barka (“wooden barge”)–arka (“arch”), l’vitsa (“lioness”)–litsa (“faces”), and poshlyi (“commonplace”)–polyi (“hollow”). In addition, the presence or absence of a phoneme can distinguish variants of a single morpheme, as in sonsna (“dream”–“of a dream”) or den’–dnia (“day”–“of a day”). In the last example there is a morphophonemic alternation of a phoneme with a phonetic zero.

Any features can be the distinctive features of a phoneme, but in each language the selection of distinctive features is limited. For example, in Russian, in contrast to French, the difference between a front and a back vowel is not a distinctive feature, but the hardness and softness of consonants is a distinctive feature, as in kon’ (“horse”)–kon (“game”) and luk (“onion”)–liuk (“hatchway”).

Phonemes form series, for example, series of hard or voiceless consonants; they also form bundles, for example, the bundle t-s-ts in Russian. A phonemic change usually affects an entire series, for example, all the voiceless consonants or all the back consonants in the series. Sometimes, however, a phonemic change is limited to individual phonemes in certain positions, for example, ver’kh-verkh (“top”) and per’vyi-pervyi (“first”) in Russian, or the progressive denasalization of the nasal vowel ę in Polish in open final syllables.

All sounds that are variants of a given phoneme are called its allophones. Since the allophones are variants of a phoneme, they may differ from the phoneme’s basic form, as in rok (“fate”) and rokovoi (“fatal”), transcribed as r”kΛvoi. Another example is the use of [’a] instead of [’e] or [’o] in the first pretonic syllable of Southern Russian iakane dialects.

Phonemes are studied within the disciplines of phonology and morphophonemics. An understanding of the role played by phonemes facilitates the solution of such practical problems as the development of alphabets and of principles of orthography.


Shcherba, L. V. Fonetika frantsuzskogo iazyka, 7th ed. Moscow, 1963.
Avanesov, R. I. Fonetika sovremennogo russkogo literaturnogo iazyka. Moscow, 1956.
Zinder, L. R. Obshchaia fonetika. Leningrad, 1960.
Reformatskii, A. A. Vvedenie v iazykovedenie, 4th ed. Moscow, 1967.
Klimov, G. A. Fonema i morfema. Moscow, 1967.
Protogenov, S. V. Istoriia ucheniia o foneme. Tashkent, 1970.
Sapir, E. “Sound Patterns in Language.” Language, 1925, vol. 1, no. 2.
Twaddell, W. F. On Defining the Phoneme. (Language Monographs, no. 16.) Baltimore, Md., 1935.
Jones, D. The Phoneme: Its Nature and Use, 3rd ed. Cambridge, 1967.



A speech utterance, such as "k," "ch," and "sh," that is used in synthetic speech systems to compose words for audio output. See formant information.
References in periodicals archive ?
Not all children become phonemically aware at the same age or grade.
But besides the alliteration of "dread" and "doing," these lines are not phonemically bound.
According to the one etymology (of Matsuoka Shizuo) in which pu isn't taken as an alternate of pi, kyepu originally meant 'day passes', which is impossible in light, of twentieth-century research on OJ phonology: OJ B-type ke (~ -ka) 'day' and A-type kye were phonemically distinct.
These 1st-graders demonstrated that it is possible to write at a high level without being able to segment words phonemically on the PSF.
In Hausa (Chadic family, Afro-Asiatic) laryngealization is phonemically contrastive in two completely unrelated consonants, namely /s/ and/j/.
We, too, found a close relationship between children's levels of writing and their levels of oral segmentation, and concluded that their knowledge of our writing system enables them to write at a higher level and to segment words phonemically.
If the vowels were phonemically distinct, the back variants may have belonged to the phoneme regularly realised as <a>, that is, the reflex of OE a, and the variation could be taken to reflect an incomplete merger of /ae/ and /a/.
That is, I propose first to look at ways in which contiguous lines may be rhymed to a greater or lesser extent, and then to consider ways in which rhyme remains phonemically exact but has its force diminished or altered by a change in the spatial (or more properly, temporal) relationship between the rhyming elements.
The evidence clearly indicates that /'/ and /g/ were phonemically opposed in most [Canaanite] dialects.
The Greek Prototypes of the City Names Sidon and Tyre: Evidence for Phonemically Distinct Initials in Proto-Semitic or for the History of Hebrew Vocalism," JAOS 124 (2004): 237-48.
As far as the native vocabulary is concerned, then, D [i] appears to be phonemically /ij/, and will henceforth be written ij.
and e-toot=s "onto her" are represented phonemically as [et'tteutn/ and /eto'ts/.