Glossary of Linguistic Terms



A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.


Phonologists have differing views of the phoneme. Following are the two major views considered here:

  • In the American structuralist tradition, a phoneme is defined according to its allophones and environments.
  • In the generative tradition, a phoneme is defined as a set of distinctive features.

(English): Minimal pair

Here are examples of the phonemes /r/ and /l/ occurring in a minimal pair:

  • rip
  • lip

The phones [r] and [l] contrast in identical environments and are considered to be separate phonemes. The phonemes /r/ and /l/ serve to distinguish the word rip from the word lip.

(English): Distinctive features

Here are examples of the English phonemes /p/ and /i/ specified as sets of distinctive features:

  • /p/ /i/
  • -syllabic +consonantal -sonorant +anterior -coronal -voice -continuant -nasal+syllabic -consonantal +sonorant +high -low -back -round +ATR -nasal

Here is a chart that compares phones and phonemes:

A phone is …

A phoneme is …

One of many possible sounds in the languages of the world.

A contrastive unit in the sound system of a particular language.

The smallest identifiable unit found in a stream of speech.

A minimal unit that serves to distinguish between meanings of words.

Pronounced in a defined way.

Pronounced in one or more ways, depending on the number of allophones.

Represented between brackets by convention.


[b], [j], [o]

Represented between slashes by convention.


/b/, /j/, /o/

Glossary Hierarchy