What is a phoneme?

a phoneme, that is, a theoretical abstraction that corresponds to each of the sounds articulated when speaking a language. What is a phoneme.

What is a phoneme?

In linguistics (and more specifically, in phonology) the minimum unit of the sound of a language is known as a phoneme, that is, a theoretical abstraction that corresponds to each of the sounds articulated when speaking a language. What is a phoneme.

Put more easily, phonemes are mental acoustic images, that is, they are not real and physical sounds, but the units of a pattern of sounds that is contemplated in any language: Spanish has its phonemes, English has its, and when we learn a new language, we must also learn its sounds, that is, its phonemes.

Phonemes are the basic unit of the phonetic-phonological study of a language, since they represent the sounds that the language handles, regardless of the possible variants that exist when speaking, that is, when materializing the language in sounds real. Thus, a given phoneme corresponds, in theory, to a specific real sound, known as a phone.

However, given that speakers of the same language can greatly vary their modes of pronunciation (without speaking different languages), due to personal, dialectal or language-specific reasons, in reality one phoneme may correspond to one or several phones (that is, one or more variants of materialization. Different phones of the same phoneme are known as allophones.

This is what happens, for example, with the phoneme / d / in the word given (/ given /), which does not sound exactly the same in the first consonant as in the second, since the latter is in intervocalic position. So, despite being the same phoneme (that is, the same mental image of the sound necessary to pronounce the word), it is realized or materialized in this case in two different ways, that is, in two different phones: d and o.

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Phonology is the discipline that studies phonemes, while the discipline that focuses on phones is known as phonetics. This distinction is, in essence, the same as that between the concepts of language and speech proposed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913): the first corresponds to the mental and collective order of the language, while the second its individual materialization.

Phoneme characteristics

Phonemes are characterized by the following:

  • They are mental acoustic images, that is, traces or abstract representations of the sounds that are articulated when speaking a language. They are not, therefore, the actual sounds themselves (phones).
  • Phonemes are finite and invariable in the language, they constitute a closed order to which it is difficult to add or subtract sounds, unlike the phones, which are many and can vary immensely from one speaker to another.
  • Phonemes oppose and exclude each other, in such a way that only one of them (well, their materialization) can occupy a place in the chain of speech sounds. The meanings associated with each word depend on that fundamental distinction. For example: / papa / and / mapa / are distinguished in the choice between / p / and / m /, on which one meaning or another depends.
  • When it comes to being represented in writing, they are usually written between bars (/ phoneme /), while phones are enclosed in square brackets ([phone]). The symbols used for these representations come from the International Phonetic Alphabet
  • The phonemes correspond to the phonological level of analysis of the language, while the phones correspond to the phonetic level of analysis of it.

Phoneme and grapheme

Just as there are phonemes, which are abstractions of the sound of the language, there are also graphemes, which are the minimum units of the writing of a language.

However, the relationship between a grapheme and a given phoneme is arbitrary: the same phoneme can correspond to two different graphemes, as occurs with / b / and the graphemes <b> and <v>; or a grapheme may not correspond to any sound, as occurs with the silent <h>. To avoid this type of complexities, both phonetics and phonology use the International Phonetic Alphabet.