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[foh-neem] /ˈfoʊ nim/
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.
Compare distinctive feature (def 1).
1890-95; < French phonème < Greek phṓnēma sound, equivalent to phōnē-, verbid stem of phōneîn to make a sound (derivative of phonḗ sound, voice) + -ma noun suffix denoting result of action Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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Examples from the web for phonemes
  • He also seemed to combine phonemes to construct new words.
  • So my own work focuses on fine-grained descriptions of how languages work, from phonemes to syntax and beyond.
  • They agree that beginners should learn that sounds, or phonemes, are symbolized by letters that make words.
  • Some homunculi might be dedicated to such basic tasks as detecting horizontal and vertical lines, or identifying phonemes.
  • phonemes are the smallest units of sound of a language.
  • Picture choice items are a good way to select among alternatives to demonstrate discrimination of the phonemes.
  • Blend two to three phonemes into recognizable words.
  • LI-2: producing individual phonemes of his or her name and the names of others using accurate articulation.
  • The phonemes below reflect the pronunciation of standard arabic.
British Dictionary definitions for phonemes


(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
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
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Word Origin and History for phonemes



"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.)).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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phonemes in Medicine

phoneme pho·neme (fō'nēm')
The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning, as the m of mat and the b of bat in English.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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