any of a small set of units, usually about 20 to 60 in number, and different for each language, considered to be the basic distinctive units of speech sound by which morphemes, words, and sentences are represented. They are arrived at for any given language by determining which differences in sound function to indicate a difference in meaning, so that in English the difference in sound and meaning between pit and bit is taken to indicate the existence of different labial phonemes, while the difference in sound between the unaspirated p of spun and the aspirated p of pun, since it is never the only distinguishing feature between two different words, is not taken as ground for setting up two different p phonemes in English.Compare distinctive feature(def 1).
Origin of phoneme
1890–95; < Frenchphonème < Greekphṓnēma sound, equivalent to phōnē-, verbid stem of phōneîn to make a sound (derivative of phonḗ sound, voice) + -ma noun suffix denoting result of action
linguisticsone of the set of speech sounds in any given language that serve to distinguish one word from another. A phoneme may consist of several phonetically distinct articulations, which are regarded as identical by native speakers, since one articulation may be substituted for another without any change of meaning. Thus /p/ and /b/ are separate phonemes in English because they distinguish such words as pet and bet, whereas the light and dark /l/ sounds in little are not separate phonemes since they may be transposed without changing meaning
"distinctive sound or group of sounds," 1889, from French phonème, from Greek phonema "a sound made, voice," from phonein "to sound or speak," from phone "sound, voice," from PIE root *bha- (2) "speak" (see fame (n.)).