What different definitions of phoneme do you know?

Please note that I'm not asking for an explanation of what phoneme is but rather for professional definitions. I'm interested in how the issue is tackled in different phonological theories.

Edit: It sure is very interesting (no irony) to see how different authors explain why they're not going to refer to phoneme in their work. However, if you come across a definition (of the kind of definitions of terms that they have in mathematics), I will be still grateful if you cared to add it or refer to it here.

  • What exactly are you looking for that is not answered by searching about it?
    – Alenanno
    Feb 27, 2012 at 0:36
  • One thing is definitions given by professors in classes. The other is I don't very well know the literature on different theories in phonology and am not sure where to look. Besides, I'm hoping for some additional commentary or perhaps examples where one definition is better than some other.
    – kamil-s
    Feb 27, 2012 at 0:43
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    You will find the issue of how a phoneme should be defined, and what status it has in linguistic theory, discussed in literature up until around the end of the 1960's, and then only sporadically thereafter. Right now "phoneme" lives on in introductory phonology courses mostly out of pedagogical tradition, but is no longer the subject of active research. Are you looking for historical overviews of the development of phoneme theory, or are you interested in current-day phonological theory?
    – user483
    Feb 27, 2012 at 1:45
  • While there surely are some historical definitions which I never stumbled upon, I am primarily interested in the new ones. For all I know, phoneme is still widely used as a concept, if not always in a very overt way, and I'd like to know how it's defined. Unless it's not defined at all, just assumed that everyone knows what it is?
    – kamil-s
    Feb 27, 2012 at 7:57
  • Of the major approaches to phonology used in the US and Britain, none make crucial use of the term, so there are no modern definitions to be had. The term gets used in (a) introductory linguistics textbooks, (b) modern-day grammars (language documenters tend to use conservative terminology) and (c) fields parallel to linguistics such as psycholinguistics. It's possible the term is still used in Russia since I don't know about current research there. I think where "phoneme" is still used it is with an intuitive definition along the lines of older ones.
    – user483
    Feb 27, 2012 at 11:15

3 Answers 3


see Kortlandt (1972) for discussion on the development of the phoneme in Soviet phonological theory, also Freeman (1935) for an idea of the issues at hand in the early days of American Structuralism.

American linguists today tend to be either uncritical about a definition or openly hostile to the concept:

Gussenhoven & Jacobs (1998: 55) "The term phoneme is used to refer to the segment category that the various allophones are variants of."

Odden (2005: 43) "In english, [t] and [th] are predictable variants of a single abstract segment, a phoneme, which we represent as /t/. Predictable variants are termed allophones -- the sounds are in complementary distribution because the context where one variant appears is the complement of the context where the other sound appears."

Ladefoged "Vowels and Consonants" (2001: 193--4) "If we are thinking in acoustic terms, even ? is not so far from t. On a spectrogram both correspond to very similar gaps in the pattern. Linguists have a term for a group of similar sounds of this kind. They call it a phoneme...We talk of the difference between kit and pit being the use of the phoneme /k/ as opposed to the phoneme /p/. There is usually no harm in expressing htings this way. But it is important to remember that it is a kind of shorthand. A phoneme is not a single sound but a group of sounds.

Silverman (2006: 215) "For our purposes though, the phoneme is not an entity on any level—functional, phonetic, psychological, or even metaphorical. Rather, at best, phoneme is merely a terminological expedient that might capture the functional non-distinctness of any collection of phonetic properties that allomorphically alternates. And yet, despite its expedience, I choose to avoid the term altogether, because terminological expedients have a demonstrated tendency to become reified by their users."

Ladefoged (ms.) "Perhaps the most startling conspiracy — one that seems to have deceived by far the majority of linguists — is the appearance of phonemes. Accounts of human behavior in terms of phonemes are nearly always examples of what has been called the psychologist's fallacy — the notion that because an act can be described in a given way that it is necessarily structured in that way. As will be shown later, phoneme size units play only a minor role in human behavioral acts such as normal speaking and listening. They are, nevertheless, great imaginary objects for use in describing linguistic aspects of speech."

Goldsmith (1976: 17--8) "The standard linguistic assumption regarding the nature of phonological representations...implies that the process of language acquisition and of perception includes the development of the ability to take a representation and slice it vertically into columns...Let us call this assumption the "Absolute Slicing Hypothesis" ... The assumption of the Absolute Slicing Hypothesis fails...and this failure is in no sense a trivial one."

==== I'm going to add the index entry for for "Phoneme" in Fischer-Jorgensen (1975) "Trends in phonological theory", since I didn't have that book with me yesterday:

(1) concept and definition of the phoneme as:
an abstractional fictitious unit 6.12
a bundle of distinctive properties (features) 3.3, 6.4, 8.3, 8.4, 8.18, 11.7, 11.25
a class of (non-contrastive) sounds 6.13, 12.10
a family of sounds 4.3
an element of a morpheme 11.3, 11.9
an ideal abstract sound type 12.17
a member of a phonological opposition 3.3, 4.3
a minimum distinctive unit 11.3, 11.7, 11.10, 11.30
a minimum same of vocal feature 6.4
a minimum unit, differentiating signifiers 11.15, 11.18
a notion with differentiating function 11.4
a point in a pattern 2.12
a physical unit 6.11
a psychologically defined unit 2.4, 3.3, 11.3
a purely logical symbol 6.14, 6.15
the realization of a morphon 10.4, 10.6, 10.12, 10.14
a unit based on comparison 11.30
a useless concept 9.67, 9.68 (but cp. 9.70)

  • 1
    Thanks a lot, jlovegren. It's a great collection, and it gives a very nice outlook on linguistics and phonology today. I am indebted. As an afterthought, it also brings about the question of why definitions of linguistic terms are so underworked and why linguists generally don't seem to be bothered by the fact.
    – kamil-s
    Feb 27, 2012 at 23:28
  • Most of Ladefoged's arguments are rather strange, and, in my opinion, show that his understanding of the phoneme was somewhat superficial. For example, the Rad-Rat contrast in German. The fact whether there is some acoustical difference or not is irrelevant to the phonological theory. The question is whether native speakers of that language actually use that information in speech processing. I'd argue that in such cases ambiguity resolution depends a lot on context and not phonetics. The same applies to his "just-just" example.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 28, 2012 at 17:48
  • His Russian example is also irrelevant. So what that linguistically naive native speakers don't know whether [ɨ] is a phoneme or not? Do they know anything about anaphor resolution or vowel reduction?
    – Alex B.
    Feb 28, 2012 at 17:52
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    @KamilS. yes you're right about my intentions. I think AlexB. was reacting because he wanted to see more detailed argumentation from the authors who are rejecting the concept altogether on why it should be rejected...
    – user483
    Feb 28, 2012 at 21:35
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    @jlovegren Truth be told, so would I. I actually still think it is a very handy and widely used concept, if not always in a conscious way. This is not to say I'm asking you to copy half of all these books here :) You've been very helpful already, thank you.
    – kamil-s
    Feb 28, 2012 at 22:00

I thought the following two passages nicely summarize current thinking on the phoneme in phonology:

"The most conspicuously unresolved issue in phonology, in my view, is the debate over the classical phoneme that began in the late 1950s. The critiques by Halle (1959) and Chomsky (1964) deprived the traditional phoneme concept of its theoretical legitimacy, but it has nevertheless survived more or less intact in practical applications (such as speech therapy, reading and literacy training, and speech technology), in linguistic fieldwork, and -revealingly - in beginning linguistics courses. Schane's contention (1971) that generative phonology had only superficially done away with the phoneme has never been refuted (see further Ladd 2006)."

Ladd, D. R. 2011. Phonetics in phonology. In John A. Goldsmith, Jason Riggle, and Alan C. L. Yu. 2011. Handbook of phonological theory. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

The final draft is available here

Dresher, Elan. 2011. Phoneme. In Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume & Keren Rice, eds., The Blackwell companion to phonology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. (a monumental work on phonology, in 5 volumes, a must-read!)

"The concept of the phoneme was central to the development of phonological theory. In the early twentieth century, phonological theory was all about the phoneme: how to define it, how to recognize it, how to discover it (see, for example, the articles selected for inclusion in Joos 1957 and Makkai 1972). The American structuralist term for phonology, phonemics, indicates to what extent the field was considered to be about the phoneme.

Things have now changed. The phoneme, to all appearances, no longer holds a central place in phonological theory. Two recent and voluminous handbooks devoted to phonology, edited by Goldsmith (1995) and by de Lacy (2007), have no chapter on the phoneme. It is barely mentioned in the indexes. This does not mean that the phoneme plays no role in modern phonology; closer inspection reveals that the phoneme is far from dead [emphasis mine - Alex B.]. However, it is not much talked about, and when it is, it is more often to dispute its existence than to affirm it.


As the above survey shows, the phoneme has not disappeared from phonological theory. The fact that recent handbooks of phonology have no chapters devoted to it is not a sign of its demise; rather, it is a function of the development of phonological theory [emphasis mine - Alex B.]. The time is past when one can attempt to provide an exhaustive definition of the phoneme and its properties apart from elaborating a complete theory of phonology. Many current topics in phonology can be viewed as being about aspects of the phoneme, even though the phoneme is not invoked."

On the phoneme in psycholinguistics: Uppstad and Tønnessen 2010

  • Thank you, Alex, this is a nice passage. I wonder what this revealingly is actually supposed to mean. Any ideas?
    – kamil-s
    Feb 28, 2012 at 21:29
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    +1 nice quote. I think I read that paper in a draft version last year.
    – user483
    Feb 28, 2012 at 21:37
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    Oh yes, the second quote is very nice, too. And a relief to me. I guess it's already clear I'm sort of a fan of the concept and definitely wouldn't want to see it go away. Thank you.
    – kamil-s
    Feb 28, 2012 at 22:03
  • @AlexB: I sympathize with your not understanding that context-less quotation from my book. I'm happy to send you the chapter it comes from. It'll give you a better idea of my views on the issue. You can email me from seedyroad.com/email.htm Regards, dan
    – user2009
    Apr 29, 2013 at 21:04

Just to put in my two cents here, I've always thought of phonemes as equivalence classes over the set of linguistically attested acoustic signals. With a given statistical model in place, membershiphood into a phonemic class is determined on statistical similarity. I would guess that the model is determined by a vector of real parameters, meaning that the signal space is a euclidean space and phonemic categories are a matter of euclidean clustering. Then statistical similarity becomes a question of euclidean distance, or some other metric on the signal space. Though I haven't yet read into the matter yet, this is the definition I am expecting going into acoustic phonetics. At least with this definition, idiolectual variation is accommodated and experimental error is easily overcome. I'm just speculating at this point, but I would guess that allophones are witnessed by further analysis of a given phonemic category, perhaps by dense euclidean subclusters.

I really have no idea since I haven't read into the subject, but I don't like this definition because it appears at least to be model dependent; even if the signal space is assumed euclidean, a different probabilistic model may yield different clusters. At this point I should stop speculating, but I can't help think that, as convenient as this theory would be, it doesn't yet address the internal representation of what these clusters might represent. This approach does seem very intuitive though.

There's a paper I just found A cross-linguistic investigation of locus equations as a phonetic descriptor for place of articulation. Sussman 1993 that apparently makes a "100% classification rate for 3 places of articulation" and the method involves using a regression relationship of F2 onset and F2 mid of a vowel V when it occurs after a stop C. So, CV for C=[b,d,ɡ]

Strong linear regression relationships were found for every stop category across all speakers. Slopes and y intercepts systematically varied as a function of place of articulation.

I'm not sure what the significance of this is, but it seems relevant.

  • 1
    It is an interesting thought, that phonemes are phonetically similar groups of sounds, and reminiscent of the theory proposed by Jones (1950), though most commentators have rejected phonetic similarity as the defining characteristic of allophones.
    – user483
    Jul 5, 2012 at 13:00

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