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A speech sound (phone) that is contrastive, that is, is perceived as being different from all other speech sounds.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



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.


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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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


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.
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