pho·​neme | \ˈfō-ˌnēm \

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

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

The first known use of phoneme was in 1879

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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 \

Kids Definition of phoneme

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


pho·​neme | \ˈfō-ˌnēm \

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-​ \ adjective
phonemically \ -​mi-​k(ə-​)lē \ adverb

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Comments on phoneme

What made you want to look up phoneme? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


something that serves to warn or remind

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