pho·​neme ˈfō-ˌnēm How to pronounce phoneme (audio)
: 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 Humans are able to learn from very few examples, meaning that even a single encounter can solidify the connection between a silver hand puppet and the phonemes that comprise robot. Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, 5 Apr. 2024 There’s something rhythmic to Athenian gossip, with TV-star names merging with Greek phonemes and the names of islands, ships, and ancient philosophers. Virginia Heffernan, WIRED, 14 Feb. 2024 The team recruited two male expert backward speakers for their experiments—both native Spanish speakers since Spanish is especially well-suited, as the phonemes always retain the same sound regardless of their position and surrounding segments. Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica, 14 Sep. 2023 While her attempts at speech do not result in sound, Mrs. Johnson’s weeks of repeating a small vocabulary taught the artificial intelligence deep-learning models her brain patterns along with the 39 phonemes in English – the individual units of sound rather than whole words. Cameron Pugh, The Christian Science Monitor, 5 Oct. 2023 The winners of the communication prize imaged the brains of two people who scramble or reverse the order of phonemes, or the sounds that make up words, while talking. Will Sullivan, Smithsonian Magazine, 15 Sep. 2023 An exogenous shock to a phoneme's frequency, due to the presence of the phoneme in the names of prominent hurricanes, boosts the popularity of names that share that phoneme. Ncbi Rofl, Discover Magazine, 4 Oct. 2012 This was done in two stages, with the first mapping brain recordings to sequences of distinct phonemes—individual units of sound within words—before a second stage collected those sounds into words. IEEE Spectrum, 24 Aug. 2023 Instead of recognizing whole words, the AI decodes words from phonemes, according to UCSF. Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY, 24 Aug. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'phoneme.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from French phonème, borrowed from Greek phōnēmat-, phṓnēma "sound made by a person or animal, utterance, speech, language," from phōnē-, variant stem of phōnéō, phoneîn "to speak, utter, (of animals) make a sound, (of instruments) sound" (derivative of phōnḗ "sound made by something living, voice, speech, utterance") + -mat-, -ma, resultative noun suffix — more at phono-

First Known Use

1879, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of phoneme was in 1879

Dictionary Entries Near phoneme

Cite this Entry

“Phoneme.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


pho·​neme ˈfō-ˌnēm How to pronounce phoneme (audio)
: one of the smallest units of speech that distinguishes one utterance from another
\n\ and \t\ in "pin" and "pit" are different phonemes

Medical Definition


pho·​neme ˈfō-ˌnēm How to pronounce phoneme (audio)
: 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
phonemic adjective
phonemically adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on phoneme

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