[ foh-neem ]
/ ˈfoʊ nim /
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noun Linguistics.
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.


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Origin of phoneme

First recorded in 1890–95; from French phonème, from Greek phṓnēma “sound,” equivalent to phōnē-, verbal stem of phōneîn “to make a sound” (derivative of phonḗ “sound, voice”) + -ma noun suffix denoting result of action
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the most basic unit of a speech sound in a language. A speech sound must be distinct from other speech sounds to be considered a phoneme.

You can think of phonemes as the building blocks of spoken language. We make different words by combining different sounds, or phonemes, together.

In English, we have phonemes made from both consonants and vowels. For example, the word fan consists of three sounds, /f/ /a/ /n/, with the /f/ and /n/ being consonant sounds and /a/ being a vowel sound.

In written language, a phoneme can be represented by a single letter or multiple letters. For example, in the word rain, the a and i together represent the long /a/ sound. Go, bow, and though each use a different number of letters to represent the same /oh/ phoneme (o, ow, and ough).

Why is phoneme important?

The first records of the term phoneme come from around 1890. It ultimately comes from the Greek phṓnēma, meaning “sound.” Phonemes are distinct sounds that we use to indicate different words.

Phonemes are used to introduce languages to new learners. When you learned English, your teacher likely taught you about phonemes early on or used them to help you understand how we make words. Children are often taught phonemes to help them “sound out” words to make spelling and reading easier to master.

Every spoken language is made from phonemes, but the phonemes vary from language to language. Not every phoneme in one language exists in another. For example, the Spanish words caro (meaning “expensive”) and carro (meaning “car”) are separated by a difference in one phoneme. The “rolled r” phoneme in carro doesn’t exist in English and can often trip up English speakers new to learning Spanish.

Did you know … ?

Most linguists agree that the English language has at least 40 different phonemes. However, some argue that the exact number of English phonemes changes depending on a person’s accent and variety of English (British, American, Australian, etc.) a person uses.

What are real-life examples of phonemes?

This video demonstrates 44 phonemes used by American English speakers.


The concept of phonemes is important to teaching new learners of a language.


What other words are related to phoneme?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Phonemes are distinct sounds that are used to indicate different meanings in words of a language.

How to use phoneme in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for phoneme

/ (ˈfəʊniːm) /

linguistics one 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

Word Origin for phoneme

C20: via French from Greek phōnēma sound, speech
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012