Phoneme

Phonemes are like the secret agents of the language world! They may not look like much, but they're the tiny sounds that hold the power to change the meaning of a word. Think of them like a code that only the smartest linguists know how to crack. Imagine you're trying to figure out what your friend is saying over the phone, but you can't quite make out the words. That's because you're trying to understand the phones, the actual physical sounds. But when you figure out the phonemes, suddenly everything becomes clear; phonemes can be inferred from the pattern of phones used in a language. 

Phoneme Phoneme

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Table of contents

    Phoneme meaning

    A phoneme is typically considered the smallest unit of meaningful sound. We study phonemes in phonology, the branch of linguistics that helps us understand the relationship between speech sounds and meaning in a language. Therefore, phonemes are language-specific, and their meanings may differ from language to language.

    This article will focus on the 44 phonemes in the English language (20 vowel and 24 consonant sounds). We’ll cover these in more detail soon.

    Phoneme examples

    In English, the letters in a word don’t always directly correspond to its pronunciation. Take a look at the following four words as an example of phonemes: Cat, rate, wasp, awe. The phonemic transcriptions for these four words are: /kæt/, /reɪt/, /wɒsp/, and /ɔː/.

    As you can see, the letter ‘a’ has been used to represent four different distinct and meaningful sounds, otherwise known as phonemes, and the pronunciation differs across all four words.

    Let's look at some more phoneme examples, starting with the word 'rate':

    If you changed the phoneme /eɪ/ (the long 'a' sound) in the word rate to the phoneme /æ/ (the short 'a' sound), you would get a whole new word - rat. This is because phonemes are meaningful units of sound and have an impact on the meaning of words.

    Now, take a look at the word thought. The phonemic transcription is: /θɔːt/.

    As you can see, the word thought contains three phonemes, they are: /θ/ (the voiceless ‘th’ sound), /ɔː/ (the open-mid back rounded vowel sound), and /t/ (the consonant ‘t’ sound).

    The phonemic transcription (that’s the funny letters and symbols between two slashes!) tells us exactly how to pronounce words. Each sound (phoneme) is represented by a letter or symbol from the English phonemic chart, which is derived from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) - this means that no matter how crazy a word’s spelling is (let’s be honest, some English words have some pretty crazy spellings) we can always examine the phonemes to understand exactly how to pronounce it.

    English phonemes

    English has 26 letters in its alphabet but 44 different phonemes. The 44 phonemes include:

    • 18 consonants (b, c, d, f, etc.),
    • Six digraphs (two consonants working together to create a new sound, i.e. 'sh' / ʃ / or ‘th’ /θ/ or /ð/),
    • 12 monophthongs (vowels that make a single sound, i.e. the 'a' in cat) and,
    • Eight diphthongs (a sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, i.e. the 'oi' /ɔɪ/ sound in coin).

    The 44 phonemes of English can be found in the English phonemic chart.

    Phonemes: what is the English phonemic chart?

    The English phonemic chart uses letters and symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and comprises the 44 most useful phonemes for understanding English pronunciation. Of course, the pronunciation of English differs from country to country, and dialect to dialect. Therefore, several different versions of the English phonemic chart exist, and not all charts cover all possible pronunciations.

    The British author, Adrian Underhill, created the most famous and widely used English phonemic chart based on British Received Pronunciation.

    Received pronunciation (RP) is a standardised version of British pronunciation typically associated with being educated in the south of England (although this isn’t always the case, and RP is used throughout the UK).

    Here is the phonemic chart!

    Phoneme image of the phonemic chart StudySmarterFig. 1 - The English phonemic chart shows all of the phonemes that exist in the English language.

    Although the chart may look like a random bunch of symbols and letters, it is actually organised in a helpful way!

    The chart is split into three sections:

    • Monopthongs - Pure vowel sounds, spoken with one tone and one mouth shape.

    • Diphthongs - Sounds created with two vowel sounds. Diphthongs are also called gliding vowels, as one vowel sound glides into another.

    • Consonants - Basic speech sounds produced by obstructing breath in the vocal tract.

    The monophthongs are arranged in accordance with the mouth shape we make when producing the sound.

    Left → right = lips wide → lips rounded. For example, sheep → too.

    Top → bottom = jaw closed → jaw open. For example, book → part.

    The diphthongs are arranged in the same way as monophthongs and are based on the final vowel sound.

    The first two lines of consonants are arranged in voiced and voiceless pairs. As examples, let’s look at the consonant pairs /p/ and /b/.

    These two sounds are consonant pairs as the sounds are very similar, and the mouth shape needed to produce the sounds is almost identical. However, the difference between the two phonemes is that /p/ is voiceless and /b/ is voiced.

    Try it: Place two fingers on your throat and pronounce the /p/ and /b/ sounds. You should feel a vibration in your vocal cords when pronouncing the /b/ - this is because it is voiced.

    The bottom row in the chart includes the single consonant phonemes - these are consonants that have no pairs.

    Phonemes: phonemic transcription

    When transcribing phonemes, we use the broad transcription (this means we only include the important phonemes that are vital to the correct pronunciation of the word) and place the transcription between two slashes (/ /).

    For example, the phonemic transcription of the word ‘language’ looks like this /ˈlæŋgwɪʤ/.

    Phonemic transcriptions are the most common type of transcription. If you want to learn the correct pronunciation of a word, a dictionary will provide the phonemic transcription.

    You may have seen transcriptions between two square brackets ([ ]) before; these are called phonetic transcriptions. This brings us to our next topic, phonemes vs. phones.

    Phonemes vs. Phones

    We’ve already established that phonemes are the smallest unit of meaningful sound within a specific language, so what exactly are phones?

    A phone (from the Greek fōnḗ) is any distinct speech sound. We study phones within phonetics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the physical production and reception of sound. When transcribing phones, we place the transcription between two square brackets ([ ]) and include as much information about pronunciation as possible - this is called narrow transcription. Phonetic transcriptions also include diacritics.

    Diacritics are small marks placed above, below, or next to the letter-like symbols and are used to show slight distinctions in pronunciation.

    Phones are not specific to particular languages and aren’t always vital to understanding the meaning of a word, but phonemes are! If one phoneme is exchanged for another, it could completely change the word's meaning.

    For example, look at the words broom and bloom. The /r/ and /l/ phonemes are different, resulting in two different words!

    You can tell the difference between phonetic and phonemic transcriptions by looking at the brackets. Phonetic transcriptions go within square brackets ( [ ] ), and phonemic transcriptions go within slashes ( / / ).

    Phonemes: minimal pairs

    We can understand the importance of phonemes by looking at minimal pairs.

    Minimal pairs are two words that sound similar but have one phoneme different, positioned in the same place in the word - for example, lock and rock. The difference between the /l/ and /r/ phonemes changes the entire meaning of the words.

    Another common example of a minimal pair is the words ship and sheep. Here, the vowel phonemes in the middle of the word differ, creating two completely different words.

    Phoneme image of minimal pairs StudySmarterFig- 2 - 'Sheep' and 'ship' are a minimal pair as they only differ in their vowel sound.

    Phoneme - Key takeaways

    • A phoneme is the smallest unit of meaningful sound.

    • We study phonemes in phonology, the branch of linguistics that helps us understand the relationship between speech sounds and meaning within a specific language.

    • Phonemes are language-specific - there are 44 phonemes in the English language (20 vowel and 24 consonant sounds).

    • When transcribing phonemes, we use the English phonemic chart and place the transcription between two slashes (/ /).

    • The British author Adrian Underhill created the most widely used English phonemic chart based on British Received Pronunciation.


    References

    1. Fig. 1. Snow white1991, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Phoneme

    What is a phoneme?

    A phoneme is the smallest unit of meaningful sound within a specific language. When we exchange one phoneme for another, it will likely change the meaning of the word. For example, changing the phoneme /p/ to /t/ changes the word sheep to sheet. 

    What is a phoneme in phonetics?

    In phonetics, a phoneme is a minimal unit that can not be broken up into smaller units, and it is represented by the slash brackets, as in /n/.

    How many phonemes are in English?

    There are 44 different phonemes in English.

    What are the different types of phonemes?

    The 44 English phonemes are divided into three distinct categories: 

    • Monopthongs - Pure vowel sounds, spoken with one tone and one mouth shape.

    • Diphthongs - Sounds created with two vowel sounds. Diphthongs are also called gliding vowels, as one vowel sound glides into the other. 

    • Consonants - Basic speech sounds produced by obstructing breath in the vocal tract. 

    What are some examples of a phoneme?

    /θ/ is an example of a phoneme. The /θ/ symbol represents the voiceless 'th' sound in English i.e. through. Another example is the minimal pair of pat and bat. The difference between the /p/ and /b/ phonemes changes the entire meaning of the words. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which minimal pair is correct?

    Which pairs of words are not minimal pairs?

    True or false: Phonemes are part of the study of phonetics.

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