Glossary: phoneme


A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that signals a distinct, contrasting meaning. For example:

  • /t/ contrasts with /k/ to signal the difference between tap and cap
  • /t/ contrasts with /l/ to signal the difference between bought and ball.

It is this contrast in meaning that tells us there are two distinct phonemes at work.

There are around 44 phonemes in English; the exact number depends on regional accents. A single phoneme may be represented in writing by one, two, three or four letters constituting a single grapheme.

  • The word cat has three letters and three phonemes: /kæt/
  • The word catch has five letters and three phonemes: /kaʧ/
  • The word caught has six letters and three phonemes: /kɔ:t/

Phonetics and phonology - Consonants


Consonants are produced by pushing air up from the lungs and out through the mouth and/or nose. Airflow is disrupted by obstructions made by various combinations of vocal articulator movements, so that audible friction is produced. 

They are described in terms of (1) voicing, (2) place of articulation and (3) manner of articulation.

Phonetics and phonology - Starter

Group discussion questions

You could start the lesson by asking students questions such as:


Phonetics and phonology - Terminology

What do phoneticians and phonologists do?

Phonetics and phonology are the branches of linguistics that deals with speech sounds. This broad ranging definition is indicative of the broad type of work that phoneticians/phonologists do:

Phonetics and phonology - Transcribing spoken language

Transcribing sounds

In this activity, you'll be using your knowledge of articulatory phonetics to transcribe spoken language. To do so, you'll be using the phonetic alphabet - a system designed by linguists to represent speech sounds on the page.

Phonetics and phonology - Vowels

In the starter activity, we asked the question 'How can we write down speech sounds? For example, how can we capture the difference between a northern British accent saying bath and a southern British accent saying bath?


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