What are Phonemes

What are Phonemes

A phoneme is the smallest unit of language that conveys meaning. When phonemes are combined, we can make words. Phonemes can be introduced as the basic speech sounds in a language. Both vowels and consonants are included in phonemes. Phonemes are generally written between slashes

A phoneme doesn’t have an inherent meaning by itself, but when joined in a word, they can bring meaning. For example, the difference between rip and nip is an exchange of the phoneme /r/ for phoneme /n/. Two words that differ in meaning through a contrast of a single phoneme are called a minimal pair. Examples of minimal pairs include tear-fear, pie-die, cat-can, kill-kiss, pen-pan, etc.

There are about 40 phonemes in the Standard English language. Since there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, letter combinations are sometimes used to represent phonemes.

Sometimes different phonemes can be represented by the same letter combinations. For example, note the letters /ch/ in chair (/tʃɛː/), choir (/ˈkwʌɪə/) and cheek (/tʃiːk/). You’ll note here, that /ch/ has different pronunciations, which are represented by different phonemes.

Likewise, the same phoneme can be sometimes represented by different letters. For example, observe the pronunciation of the letter a in the following words:

ale /eɪl/, all/ɔːl/, hat /hat/, heart/hɑːt/

The two terms allophones and phones are related and always used in relation to phonemes; therefore, it is important to know the meaning of these two words.

Allophones refer to a one of a set of multiple possible spoken sounds or signs used to pronounce a single phoneme in a particular language. This implies that a phoneme can have more than one sound. Phones refer to the smallest discrete segment of sound in a stream of speech.

Given below are charts of IPA consonants and vowels, respectively.What are phonemes

What are Phonemes - 2Examples of Phonemes

As mentioned above, both vowels and consonants are parts of phonemes. In fact, they can be considered as further classifications of phonemes. Let us now look at some examples of vowel phonemes and consonant phonemes.

Examples of Vowel Phonemes:

/ear/: fear, here, near

/ie/: shine, mine, my, tried, light

/ue/: moon, blue, tune, grew

/ae/: gain, pain, rain, gate

/o/: long, want

Examples of Consonant Phonemes:

/k/: kite, cook, crack, mix, Chris

/s/: sun, house, roads, science

/chip/: chair, chip, watch

In the above examples, how the same phoneme is represented by different letters and how the same letter combinations are represented by different phonemes.

Phonemes – Summary

  • A phoneme is a speech sound that in a given language if swapped with another phoneme, would change the meaning of the word.
  • Phonemes are generally written between slashes.
  • Phonemes can be further classified into vowels and consonants.
  • There are about 40 phonemes in English.

Image Courtesy:

“IPA Vowels” by IPA – (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

“IPA chart 2005 consonants”. (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

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