phoneme

[foh-neem]
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 ).

Origin:
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

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World English Dictionary
phoneme (ˈfəʊniːm)
 
n
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
 
[C20: via French from Greek phōnēma sound, speech]

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Etymonline
Word Origin & History

phoneme
"distinctive sound or group of sounds," 1896, from Gk. phonema "a sound," from phonein "to sound or speak," from phone "sound, voice," from PIE base *bha- "speak" (see fame).
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Medical Dictionary

phoneme pho·neme (fō'nēm')
n.
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
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Example sentences
Spoken, it's relying primarily on phoneme production, and secondarily on word
  choice.
The two researchers are convinced that the brains of dyslexics store an
  improper and unreliable representation of phoneme sounds.
The developers can take virtually any sound and convert it into a phoneme set.
The size of a language's phoneme inventory is not at all obvious.
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