What exactly is a phoneme?

Phoneme from the dictionary--

  1. Merriam-Webster (Collegiate 10th ed.):  any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to the set of similar speech sounds (as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a distinctive sound in the language.
  2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd ed.):  The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning as the m in met and the b in bat.

Phoneme from various linguistics-related sources--

  1. Lingualinks Library Glossary:  "a member of the set of the smallest units of speech that serve to distinguish one utterance from another in a language or dialect.  Examples:  A unit of speech is considered a phoneme if replacing it in a word results in a change of meaning - pin becomes bin, bat becomes rat, cot becomes cut." Ref:
  2. 21 Century Eloquence: Voice Recognition Glossary:  "the smallest sound utterance." Ref:  [, link no longer valid]
  3. The Letter Matrix Project: Alternate Notations for English:  "By definition, a phoneme is a difference in sound that makes a difference in meaning." Ref:
  4. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, William Morrow and Company, Inc., NY, 1994. p 497 (Glossary):  "One of the units of sound that are strung together to form a morpheme, roughly corresponding to the letters of the alphabet:  b-a-t; b-ea-t; s-t-ou-t."

Will the real phoneme stand up?

The above definitions and descriptions show that "phoneme" means different things to different people.
 1.  Merriam Webster provides the simplest, most useful definition:  an "abstract unit" of language that is clearly distinguished from a "set of similar sounds" corresponding to it.  In the example, \k\ represents the mental (abstract) form of a phoneme giving rise to a number of similar phonetic units among which are sounds phoneticians identify as "velar c" in the lexical word cool, but "palatal k" in keel.  The example clearly differentiates among three systems representing words, but does not describe them:  The English (lexical) writing system - words specified as sequences of letters obtained from a dictionary; the (phonetic) pronunciation system - words pronounced as sequences of sound units accepted as standard in a dialectical community; and the "natural" (phonemic) language system - words stored as sequences of phonemes in minds of individuals sharing a common language.
2.  The remaining references call a phoneme a sound or use synonyms that imply it is a sound:  phonetic unit, speech unit, sound unit, utterance, or acoustic value.  In so defining phonemes, language and educational professionals usually fail to recognize the key roles real (mental) phonemes play in the processes of converting thought/words in a speaker's mind into word/sounds and sounds back again into word/thoughts in every listener's mind.  Recognizing thousands of different sounds produced by the speech habits of millions of individuals as relating to a limited set of basic phonemic sounds is an intellectual task that is difficult for novices to comprehend and use.  Understanding the concept "phoneme as sound" is more complex still when word sounds are exemplified by the letters in a word's dictionary listing rather than by invariant symbols representing corresponding mental phonemes.  For example, contrast cat, kick, and chemist with \ kat\, \kik\, and \kemist\ or bluff, tough, and caught with \bluf\, \tuf\, and \kot\.

Phonemes, their significance and use.

Phoneme-as-speech-sound—Linguists classify speech sounds for purposes of examining and comparing languages.  Within each language the broadest categories are dialects and within dialects are allophones grouped within phonemes.  Allophones are speech sounds, differentiated by phoneticians and written (transcribed) with phonetic symbols. Such differences are commonly ignored by ordinary speakers.  Thus, phoneticians’ main concern is pronunciation; for English users, the main concern is word comprehension.  Phonemes obviously cannot be “pronounced,” but are “said” within a speech community according to each individuals’ speech habits.  Of secondary interest to phoneticians, they are fundamental building blocks of English words and essential in all exchange of thoughts whether by speech or by writing.

Phoneme-as-word-elementThe concept of abstract (mental) phonemes explains how Americans with different speech habits manage to carry on oral communications despite obviously gross differences in pronunciation.  These powerful mental phonemes form the basis for an American phonemic writing system that permits all first-grade children to read and write every word in their oral vocabularies and enables all adults to use written English as naturally and easily as they speak.

Pertinent history and citations.

I have searched language literature seeking simple, easily understood answers to the following questions:  1) Why is English very difficult to learn to read and write, and 2) knowing why, can we render English very easy to learn?



Aristotle (4th Century BCE)—Aristotle, from his Logic (quoted in The Alphabet Abecedarium by Richard A. Firmage), said that “spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.”  [In modern terms, “Letters represent sounds.”] This description was simple and exact because Aristotle’s Greek used a 22-element character set, one for each of the 22 speech elements of the spoken language.  It can’t describe American English which has only 26 letters to represent 43 speech elements.  English is further complicated; most speech elements are represented in different words with several different letters or letter-combinations.


Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)—His Dictionary of the English Language (1775) established a standard traditional English orthography.  According to Dr. Johnson, words in his dictionary were spelled the way they were written by various historical “authorities” he selected.  Others (in his own words “…still continue to be variously written, as authors differ in their care or skill; of these it was proper to enquire the true orthography, which I have always considered as depending on derivation, and have therefore referred them to their original languages….”  In other words, Dr. Johnson spelled English words of “foreign” origin as written in the original language without regard to the way they were anglicized for speech.  Words from Old and Middle English were often accorded this same treatment (though Johnson does not admit as much.)


Noah Webster, “America’s schoolmaster” (1758-1843)—His Dissertations on the English Language (1789) identified “irregular” spellings championed by Johnson as the main reason English is notoriously difficult to learn to read and write.  He recommended Americans adopt a “regular” orthography simple enough “to facilitate the learning of the language” so that “a child would learn to spell with out trouble in a very short time and…would forever afterwards find it…as difficult to spell wrong as it is now to spell right.”


Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845 –1929), Polish linguist.  (From Daniel Jones, The Phoneme:  Its Nature and Use, 1950.  p213)—De Courtenay was the first (about 1870-1880) to describe phonemes as psychological entities distinct from sounds (phones) uttered to represent them in speech.  “He applied the term “physiophonetics” to the study of sounds actually uttered and: the term ”psychophonetics” to the study of  “mental images” which uttered sounds are intended to represent.”  [Note a clear distinction between word-sounds and the mental elements of words.]  He ascribed the invention of “phoneme” to his student Kruszewski (essay published in1879) as a unique label for these mental word elements.


Henry Sweet (1845-1912) and Daniel Jones (1881-1967), English phoneticians. (See Jones, The Phoneme)— Dr Jones explained:  “…although the English k’s in (keep), (call), and (cool) are distinct sounds, it is necessary…to treat them as if they were one and the same.” (Jones, p7)  [Why “necessary” is unclear.  This characteristic is clear if they are called allophones, a term that defines them as distinct speech sounds that have a special relationship with each other in discourse.]  Unfortunately, phoneticians misappropriated the term phoneme to represent such a group of speech sounds, leading to great confusion.  Modern day linguists and educators blithely follow that error.  In the 1967 edition of The Phoneme, Dr Jones cites the de Courtenay definition of phoneme (above) as being “psychological” (read “mental”) in nature and therefore of no practical importance.  According to him, no one has demonstrated the existence of such phenomena, and were they to do so, the discovery would have no significance to phoneticians, who deal only with physically measurable entities, that is, with speech sounds.


Kenneth L. Pike (1912-2000), American phonemicist. (Kenneth L. Pike, Phonemics: A technique for Reducing Languages to Writing, U. of Michigan, 1947)—Developed a phonemic theory for deriving an easily-learned writing system from a spoken language:  “The purpose of practical phonemics, therefore, is to reduce a language to writing.”  “The sounds of a language are automatically and unconsciously organized by the native [speakers] into structural units, which we call phonemes…a practical orthography is phonemic…it has one, and only one, symbol  for each sound unit…once a native learns an orthography which is closely correlated with his sound units, there is no ’spelling’ problem.”

Originally published June 10, 2000 last worked on August 6, 2009.  James H. Kanzelmeyer