Phoneme – sound – allophone – phone

Phoneme-allophone-chartDear All,
There are several terms in phonetics which are often confused. These terms are phoneme, sound, allophone, and phone. The purpose of this post is to clearly define each of these terms and exemplify them.

  • Phoneme (Gr. phone “sound, voice”) is the smallest contrastive unit of language that may change the meaning of a morpheme and, as a pursuant, a word.

Put it simply, phoneme is a contrasting phonological unit. Let us consider several examples:
1) pig – big /p/* – /b/
2) pen – pan /e/ – /æ/
3) sink – think /s/ – /θ/

As can be seen from the examples above, the distinction between /p/ – /b/, /e/ – /æ/, and /s/ – /θ/ creates new words in English, which means that English has such phonemes as /p/, /b/, /e/, /æ/, /s/, /θ/ (among other English phonemes). When linguists construct phonological system of a language (let’s say the language of a tribe), they try to find pairs of words in which the distinction is as small as in the words above. If such a pair is found, then it means that this language has such phonemes. Let us consider one more example, in Russian this time:
4) люк [luk] “hatch” – лук [ɫuk] “onion” /l/ – /ɫ/.

In this pair the only difference between two words is /l/ – /ɫ/, that is, soft /l/ vs hard /ɫ/. As example 4 shows, in Russian, there are two distinctive phonemes /l/ – /ɫ/ since they change the meaning of the word**. However, in English, there is no phoneme /ɫ/ since it does not serve the purpose of distinguishing words or morphemes. For example, whether we pronounce [lamp] or [ɫamp], it does not change the meaning; therefore, it is not a phoneme in English. In contrast, in Russian, there is no pair of words which would be distinguished based on the /e/ – /æ/ opposition (example 2 above); therefore, /æ/ is not a phoneme in Russian.

  • Sound (=phone) is a vibration or wave caused by an object.

This definition comes from acoustics and underlines physical characteristics of sounds of speech. Sounds are instances of phonemes in real speech. Put it simply, sounds are everything we hear with our ears. Here are some examples of sounds:
5) [k], [b], [f], [u], [d], [e], [i:]
6) the word “cat” consists of three sounds and can be transcribed as follows: [kæt]

In dictionary transcriptions, we have sounds, not phonemes. Sounds are physical segments. Sounds, unlike phonemes, have such concrete characteristics as duration in time and loudness. Sounds are produced by organs of speech. Sounds are quite concrete and linguists consider them to be units of speech; while phonemes are abstract (they are generalizations made on the basis of comparison of words) and linguists consider them to be units of language (cf Saussurian distinction langue – parole). Sometimes, in non-linguistic circles, the word “sound” is used to name what is, in fact, a phoneme.

  • Allophone (Gr. allos “other” and phone “sound, voice”) is a variant of a phoneme.

Allophones are different pronunciations of words which do not change the meaning of these words. Let us consider the following allophones:
7) [pʰ] as in “pin” and [p] as in “spin”
8) [l] as in “lean” and [ɫ] as in “fill”

Whether we (or a foreigner) pronounce [pin] or [pʰin], [spin] or [spʰin]; [li:n] or [ɫi:n], [fil] or [fiɫ], it does not really change the meaning in English. Therefore, we are dealing not with phonemes, but with allophones.

Allophones can be of three types (Kocherhan, 2006, p. 158):
a) individual (e.g. a foreigner or a person with a speech disorder cannot pronounce [p] correctly);
b) territorial (e.g. when in some part of a country [p] is always pronounced as [pʰ]); and
c) positional (e.g. [l] at the end of words is usually pronounced as [ɫ]).

See similar posts:
Theme and rheme
Coherence and cohesion
What is linguistics?

Kocherhan, M.P. (2006). Vstup do movoznavstva (2nd ed.). Kyiv: Academiia.
Scupin, R. (2012). Cultural anthropology: A global perspective (8th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

*/Slashes/ are usually used for phonemes and [square brackets] for sounds.
**Via the root morpheme.


  1. In Ukrainian, there is no phoneme /æ/. Consequently, for Ukrainian speakers, there is no easily noticeable difference between [e] and [æ]. So, it may be difficult for the Ukrainian-speaking people who learn English to pronounce “pen” vs “pan”. When a particular phoneme is absent from a language, the speakers of this language may have difficulties in distinguishing it from a different phoneme.

    Another example is the [r] – [l] opposition. For English-speaking people it is easy to distinguish such words as “light” – “right” because in English [l] and [r] are separate phonemes, but there is no such a sharp opposition in Japanese. Therefore, for Japanese people, the words “light” – “right” sound almost identically and it may be difficult to pronounce them.

    In Russian, there is no opposition between a short vs a long vowel. For instance, бит “bit” always remain “bit”, whether it is pronounced as [bit] or [bi:t]. In English “bit” [bit] means ‘minimal unit of information in computation’ or ‘a little piece of something’ (it can also be the past of ‘to bite’); whereas “beat” [bi:t] means ‘to thrash’ or ‘to defeat’. So, as we can see /i/ and /i:/ are phonemes in English, but not in Russian. Therefore, for Russian speaking people it may be difficult to tell (or to pronounce) the difference between “ship” and “sheep”; “feel” and “fill”, etc.

    Indeed, if there is no particular phoneme in a given language, it may be very difficult for the native speakers of this language to hear it and to pronounce it properly. This, probably, happens because “the initial sounds we detect as infants in our first language alter the neurological networks in our brains, resulting in enduring effects on our ability to distinguish particular sounds within a language” (Scupin, 2012, p. 91).

    Scupin, R. (2012). Cultural anthropology: A global perspective (8th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

  2. Q.: Can an allophone be like a phoneme in a given language?
    A.: Yes.

    For example, in English there are such phonemes as /e/ – /æ/; however, a Ukrainian speaker who tries to speak English is likely to confuse these phonemes because there is no such opposition in Ukrainian (and these phonemes sound identical to a Ukrainian ear). Therefore, a Ukrainian speaker who wants to say the word “pan” (for frying) may sometimes pronounce this word as “pen” [pen]. So, the allophone pronounced by this Ukrainian speaker is the same as an existing phoneme in English (i.e. /e/). In other words, this allophone is like the phoneme /e/ in this case.

    In practical terms, such a coincidence can make communication more difficult, however, as long as there is willingness to achieve a certain communicative result, effective communication is not at risk.

    It is worth noting that not all allophones are like phonemes. For example, if an English speaker who tries to speak Ukrainian says [θyn] instead of [syn] (“son” in Ukrainian), this is an allophone; however, there is no such phoneme (/θ/) in Ukrainian. Therefore, this allophone is unlike any phoneme in Ukrainian.

  3. Thanks a lot for this very simple explanation.

    • You are welcome! Thanks for taking time to say “thank you”.

  4. Antonia

    this is the first explanation I understood after looking into these words for 30 minutes. Thanks

  5. Hi there!
    I think this is the most clarifying and pedagogical explanation I’ve come across after hours of research about the difference between sound and phoneme. Grand job!!!
    Thanks a lot.

  6. Francisco

    As an amateur linguist, I found this rather useful and quite stimulating.


  1. Theme and Rheme | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  2. Coherence and cohesion | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS

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