pho·​neme | \ ˈfō-ˌnēm How to pronounce phoneme (audio) \

Definition of phoneme

: any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech sounds (such as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language

Examples of phoneme in a Sentence

The sounds represented by “c” and “b” are different phonemes, as in the words “cat” and “bat.”
Recent Examples on the Web To build his dictation engine, Chen broke Mandarin down into its smallest elements, called phonemes. Mara Hvistendahl, Wired, "How a Chinese AI Giant Made Chatting—and Surveillance—Easy," 18 May 2020 For languages that use phonemes, pictographs, or characters, all bets are off. Caroline Delbert, Popular Mechanics, "How to Do the Math Magic Trick That Will Impress Everyone You Know," 27 Feb. 2020 Some have contrasting tones while others do not; Japanese and Spanish have 25 phonemes (distinct units of sound) compared to 40 in English and Thai; and there are a few hundred distinct syllables in Japanese, versus almost 7,000 English. Olivia Goldhill, Quartz, "The language you speak changes how informative you can be," 8 Sep. 2019 While phonemes help convey meaning, speech-recognition software does not account for unintended repetitions of them, according to Rudzicz. Kevin Wheeler, Curbed, "Why voice assistants don’t understand people who stutter," 12 Dec. 2018 This involves breaking up speech samples into distinct sounds (known as phonemes) and then stitching them back together to form new words and sentences. James Vincent, The Verge, "Alexa will soon be able to read the news just like a professional," 20 Nov. 2018 Ryabov suggests that the variation seen in these pulses represents the equivalent of phonemes, or words, and that the strings of pulses could reasonably be considered dolphin sentences. National Geographic, "Dolphins Recorded Having a ‘Conversation?’ Not So Fast.," 15 Sep. 2016 Next up, game mode challenges the child to identify certain letters, phonemes and pictures — such as asking for the picture that begins with a certain letter or letter sound. Leander Kahney, WIRED, "Taking Tech Toys for a Spin," 12 Dec. 2002 The resultant voice, which is comprised of the person’s phonemes, or the distinct units of sound that distinguish one word from another in each language, doesn’t sound even remotely computer-generated or made up. Nick Bilton, The Hive, "Fake News Is About to Get Even Scarier than You Ever Dreamed," 26 Jan. 2017

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'phoneme.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of phoneme

1879, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for phoneme

French phonème, from Greek phōnēmat-, phōnēma speech sound, utterance, from phōnein to sound

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Time Traveler for phoneme

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The first known use of phoneme was in 1879

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Cite this Entry

“Phoneme.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 May. 2021.

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More Definitions for phoneme



English Language Learners Definition of phoneme

linguistics : the smallest unit of speech that can be used to make one word different from another word


pho·​neme | \ ˈfō-ˌnēm How to pronounce phoneme (audio) \

Kids Definition of phoneme

: one of the smallest units of speech that distinguish one utterance from another


pho·​neme | \ ˈfō-ˌnēm How to pronounce phoneme (audio) \

Medical Definition of phoneme

: 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

Other Words from phoneme

phonemic \ fə-​ˈnē-​mik, fō-​ How to pronounce phoneme (audio) \ adjective
phonemically \ -​mi-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce phoneme (audio) \ adverb

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More from Merriam-Webster on phoneme

Nglish: Translation of phoneme for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of phoneme for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about phoneme

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