A phoneme is not actually a sound. That's what a phone is. Here's phonemics 101:

Speech sounds are infinitely diverse. Every time you say "linguistics", the initial phone ("l") is a distinct event -- its duration is different, its pitch and volume change in different ways, etc. In short, if you recorded one million phones as the same person said "linguistics" over and over again, each recording would be different.

But the human mind typically will not deal directly with this infinite variety of phones. Instead, what you hear gets sorted through your phonemic grid to classify each phone as an instance of some phoneme.

Example: When a native of Havana, Cuba says the name of the place they're from, the "v" phone you hear is neither a typical English "v" nor a typical English "b". If you're using your English phonemic grid, however, you will hear that phone as a variant example of one of those phonemes.

Similarly, when a native speaker of American English says "t-shirt" and "teacher" to a native speaker of Cuban Spanish, the listener may hear essentially the same thing both times. One reason is that the "sh" and "ch" phones they hear will probably sort into the same phoneme based on the listener's phonemic grid.

Phonemes are the meaning bearing units of sound that make up words. They can generally be pronounced in different ways, depending on their position in the sentence, or even a person's idiosyncrasies; these different pronunciations are called allophones of the phoneme. But users of the language still recognise them as that particular phoneme. When the phoneme is changed, however, the word becomes a different word or just nonsense. It's the phonemes that make the word.

Phonemes are constructs of language and need to be learnt. This is the reason you can never even recognise the words when listening to a completely foreign language: even when there's nothing wrong with your ears, you have to get to know the phonemes first.

An accent in a language is largely a matter of different pronunciations for the same phonemes. For instance, the southern part of the Netherlands, where I live, is well known for its 'soft g': the way we pronounce 'g' is very different from the way people in Holland do it, less than 100 miles away. Actually, their pronunciation of 'g' is nearly identical to my 'r'; their 'r' is different again. None of this even occurs to me when I speak Dutch with someone from Holland. But I get confused when the context is missing, for instance, in the first sentence of a conversation. It's also confusing when the actual pronunciation is relevant; for instance, someone claimed that Spanish 'j' is roughly pronounced as Dutch 'g', and it took me some time to realise that this makes actual sense - in Holland.

A phoneme is a mental (as opposed to acoustic) construct which maps onto the smallest bit of sound which, if switched with another sound, will change the meaning of a word. One might say the word "pit" with a slight aspiration (a breathy sound) after the "p", or one might not. This will not change the meaning of the word.

However, if one changes it to a "b" one gets "bit", changing the "i" to an "o" gives "pot", and changing the "t" to an "n" gives "pin". So these are all phonemes. The two different "p"s are phones..allophones, actually, since they can replace each other. Another way of thinking of a phoneme is as the set of all its allophones.

Different languages consider different phones to be allophones, and that's just one of the things that makes pronunciation of a foreign language so interesting.

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