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Smallest unit of speech distinguishing one word (or word element) from another (e.g., the sound p in tap, which differentiates that word from tab and tag). The term is usually restricted to vowels and consonants, but some linguists include differences of pitch, stress, and rhythm. A phoneme may have variants, called allophones, that differ phonetically without affecting meaning. Phonemes may be recorded with special symbols, such as those of the International Phonetic Alphabet. In transcription, linguists conventionally place symbols for phonemes between slash marks: /p/.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on phoneme, visit Britannica.com.