Terminology: Phonemes and Phonology

Most systematic literacy instruction is built on the idea that phonemic awareness is the foundation for reading proficiency. If we’re going to even consider that idea, we need to understand the term “phonemic awareness” accurately.

Phonemic awareness, as it is used in the education world, refers to the notion that students need to be aware of the phonemes in words when they read and spell.  That has been talked about in education for decades, but unfortunately, the phoneme itself is widely misunderstood in education, and most teachers have been mistaught about the role of phonemes in the English language.  Here are some critical facts about phonemes:

A phoneme is the smallest speech segment in a word that is distinctive for meaning. That means that it’s the smallest speech segment in a word that we can change, as native speakers, to change the meaning of the word.  Say the words “sip, tip, ship, chip.” That speech segment that you are producing and changing at the beginning of each of those words is a phoneme.

However, when we talk about a given phoneme, we are not talking about just one speech segment and one unique pronunciation.  A phoneme is an abstract concept, and each phoneme in English could be defined as a collection of related speech segments which speakers of our language recognize as making “the same” contribution to meaning in a given context.

For example, if I say “I parked the car in Harvard yard,” I will pronounce the word “car” very differently than someone from Boston. Listen to that phrase in your head two ways, as though it were being pronounced with a Boston accent, and with your own (or some other) accent. If you are a native English speaker, you might notice one accent as “different” but you won’t ask yourself, “what is that word?” with either pronunciation of the word “car.” As an American, when I say “a thousand years” I do not pronounce that as you might hear someone with a British accent pronounce it. But as you hear them, either way, you are able to categorize both pronunciations as representing the same words and the same meaning. That’s how phonemes work; they do not consist of one single “pronunciation” but a range of speech segments that a native English speaker will recognize as the same in a given context. The various physical realizations of any given phoneme are known as allophones of the phoneme. So my pronunciation of the <ar> in <car> and the pronunciation of that <ar> by someone from Boston would be two allophones of a single phoneme.

Phonemes are categories in your conceptual understanding that exist in your mind rather than in physical hearing or physical articulation.

Whenever I encounter a new term, it helps me immensely to look at its morphological structure. Seeing those units of meaning often helps me to understand and remember the term (and its spelling) more easily. That shouldn’t be any surprise, since that’s how English spelling works, but I am amazed at how often I have to remind myself of this fact.

So let’s look at the morphological structure of <phoneme>: it is <phone/ + eme>. The base <phone> has an orthographic denotation of “sound, voice.” It is connected to the idea of a human voice, as in <telephone, megaphone, homophone>. The <-eme> suffix is used in linguistics with a sense of the smallest distinctive unit.  The structure of <allophone> is <all + o + phone>, with a sense of “different vocal sounds.” That <all> has a sense of “other” and is the same base we find in words like <allele, allergy & allopathy>.

When we talk about phonemes and we want to write a physical representation of a spoken phoneme, the clearest way to do that is to use IPA symbols inside of slash brackets / /.  The slash brackets indicate that we are representing a phoneme, which may be articulated in slightly varying ways, so when we use IPA for this, we’re using a single speech segment— one single allophone — to represent the whole range of possibilities for that phoneme. Here are some representations of phonemes:

The /s/ at the beginning of the word “sip”

The /t/ at the beginning of the word “tip”

The /ʃ/ at the beginning of the word “ship”

The //ʧ/ at the beginning of the word “chip”

The /p/ at the end of all those words.

The /ɪ/ in the middle of all of those words.

IPA is used when talking about both phonology and phonetics. Phonetics is the study of the physical aspect of speech production and reception — articulation and physical production of speech.  When we talk about phonetics, we are dealing with phones.

The distinction between phonology and phonetics and between phonemes and phones is critical and often very poorly understood. Notice that the / /ʧ / phoneme at the beginning of the word “chip” is one phoneme — one unit — that is distinctive for meaning in English. Yet it consists of two phones [t] and [ʃ]. Phonemes are not necessarily the smallest “sound” in a word, and if we use the word “sound” at all in talking about phonemes, we risk confusing everyone. A phone is actually the smallest segment of speech that can be isolated and a single phone is not necessarily a phoneme. The term “sound” is very imprecise, and the smallest “sound” in a word could easily be a phone rather than a phoneme.  

Each language has its own phonology — its own way of organizing and attaching meaning to speech segments in that particular language.

In English, a grapheme spells a phoneme. Graphemes are units of writing that consist of one, two or three letters.  You can read more about graphemes here.

So the word “ship” has three phonemes and each phoneme is represented by a grapheme:

phonemes:       / ʃ,   ɪ,    p /.

graphemes:   < sh,    i,    p >

Because phonemes can consist of more than one allophone, it’s sometimes challenging to sort out whether we are dealing with unique phonemes or varying pronunciations that are actually allophones of a single phoneme. Think of the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” where the lyrics are written this way:

“You like potato and I like potahto

You like tomato and I like tomahto

Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto

Let’s call the whole thing off”

The non-standard spelling of <potahto> and <tomahto> are intended to make it clear how to pronounce <tomato> and <potato> in that song, but no one actually uses the spelling  <potahto>. The fact that we always use an <a> in <potato> no matter how we pronounce it actually clarifies that we are dealing with the same phoneme regardless of which way it is pronounced.

Phonemes are deep and complex, but some key points to remember are these:

  • Phonemes are speech segments that are distinctive for meaning — changing a single phoneme in a word will change the meaning of that word.
  • Phonemes are categories in your mind — they are abstract concepts that consist of more than one physical realization. Those varying realizations are called allophones.
  • Phonemes are represented by graphemes in written words.
  • Graphemes pinpoint phonemes — they clarify distinctions between phonemes.
  • When we want to represent a spoken phoneme using written symbols, we use IPA between slash brackets (for example, /s/).

As a final thought, I would encourage you to really strive to understand the term phoneme, and to use it (or the term phone, when appropriate) when you are talking and thinking about words.  It’s confusing to students and to ourselves when we use the term “sound” when talking about spoken language. The word “sound” is imprecise, and the  smallest “sound” in a word could easily be a phone rather than a phoneme.

If you want to dig further into this topic, take a look at the blog posts from LEX ~ Linguist Educator Exchange. LEX also offers a series of LEXinars on phonology which are deep and fascinating. They will change your understanding of the phoneme forever.

You might want to start by reading this blog post titled Basket Case at LEX: Linguist~Educator Exchange

One of the reasons that I call this site Learning About Spelling is because that’s what I’m doing as I write this. Every single day I learn something new about our writing system and replace pieces of my old thinking with new. This is my current understanding and I welcome questions and responses. I’ll edit this as my understanding grows and changes.

Please contact me here with your questions, comments, and reactions.