Pronunciation GB: ˈfəʊniːm, GA: ˈfoʊniːm

A fundamental unit of phonological structure in some theories of phonology. Crucial to the idea of the phoneme is the concept of phonological contrast. A phoneme may be viewed as a set of sounds and each of the members of this set are the allophones of the phoneme. The number, identity and membership of phonemes differs from language to language, and from accent to accent within a given language. A set of sounds which is regarded as a phoneme in a particular language has the following properties: (1) The member sounds are phonetically similar to one another (2) No two members of the set contrast with one another. An example from English: the /l/ phoneme in English contains (among others) the following sounds [l lʷ ɫ l̥ ɫ̃]. The first occurs immediately preceding unrounded vowels and [j]. None of the others occurs in these environments. The second occurs only before rounded vowels. Again none of the other members occurs in this position. Similar statements can be made for every pair of allophones in the set (including those not listed above). This means that the difference between a pair of allophones is never capable of distinguishing one word from another. Added to this is the fact that all members of the set are phonetically similar: they are all lateral and alveolar (or close to this). A final factor is that native speakers of English are insensitive to the differences between these sounds. They all count as the same thing – /l/, even though it is clear that phonetically they are distinct from one another.