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linguistics : the smallest unit of speech that can be used to make one word different from another word
Full Definition of PHONEME
: any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech sounds (as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language
: a member of the set of the smallest units of speech that serve to distinguish one utterance from another in a language or dialect <the \p\ of English pat and the \f\ of English fat are two different phonemes>
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/.