Definition of phoneme in English:



  • Any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.

    Compare with allophone
    • ‘Whereas the five classic vowel letters match the five vowel phonemes of a language like Spanish, they are insufficient to distinguish the much larger number of vowel phonemes of English.’
    • ‘He was able to complete items requiring deletion of syllables and initial phonemes but had difficulty with items requiring deletion of final phonemes or phonemes within a word.’
    • ‘For example, a vowel phoneme cannot exist without a pitch, but pitch may exist as a dimension without any linguistic properties.’
    • ‘They can distinguish between any two sounds which represent distinct phonemes in any of the world's languages.’
    • ‘The English language is an alphabetic system, meaning that our written symbols correspond to the separate sounds, or phonemes, in spoken language.’


Late 19th century: from French phonème, from Greek phōnēma sound, speech from phōnein speak.