Phonemes are the building blocks of words.
A phoneme is a speech sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. They are like little categories in your brain! You sort acoustic sounds into phonemes when you say something or hear someone speak.
Not all instances of a phoneme sound exactly the same, however. Think of the [t] sound at the beginning of the english word take and compare it to the sound at the end of the word bat (if you’re speaking casually!). They’re two very acoustically different sounds, but your mind probably puts them into the same sound category!
Every language has a set of phonemes that are commonly used in that language. Different languages have different phoneme categories, and no one language uses every possible phoneme that humans could produce.
It’s easy to identify phonemes in your language by choosing words that differ only by one sound, called minimal pairs. The sounds that separate the two words in a minimal pair are phonemes.
For example, after giving a speech, you might receive cheers or jeers. These two words differ only by their first sound, ch and j, but they mean very different things! Therefore, they are a minimal pair and the two sounds ch and j are phonemes.
Not only consonants are phonemes. There are vowel phonemes too! To find some, let’s take another minimal pair: lock and luck. These words differ only in their vowel sound. These two vowel-sounds are separate phonemes.
Aahnix is a Project Coordinator in the Bergelson lab at Duke University