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A phoneme (rare: Fonem ) (from ancient Greek φωνή Phone , German , sound ' , sound', 'voice', 'language') is the abstract class of all sounds ( phone ), which in a spoken language in the same sense-discriminative (distinctive ) Function.

  • Example: The front, rolled r and the back r, which is not or at least less clearly rolled, are two different phones (sounds) which, in German, do not make any difference in meaning between words and are therefore only variants ( allophones ) of the one phoneme / r /. Specifically: Some people pronounce the first sound of the color word “red” with the clearly rolled (anterior, alveolar), others with the not or at least less clearly rolled (posterior, uvular) r; every listener understands this to mean the same word “red”. It is different if you use the sound “t” instead of one of the possible r sounds: instead of the word “red” you get a completely different word: “dead”. The two r-sounds belong to one and the same phoneme / r /, the said t-sound to a different phoneme, namely / t /.

The phoneme can thus be defined as the smallest meaningful unit of the phonetic system of a language. The phoneme is not defined by its sound alone, but by its function. Phonemes are thus the subject of investigation in phonology , while the units of phonetics (as sound events) are called phones . Both are to be distinguished from graphemes , the smallest functional graphic units of a writing system (which, even in alphabetical scripts, do not always correspond exactly to a phoneme or phoneme).


To listing of phonemes, use is generally the phonetics symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet . However, this is just a simplification: Since phonemes are not identical to sounds, but rather positions within a system, one could in principle use any symbol for a phoneme. To distinguish, phonemes are noted with slashes and phone in square brackets.

  • For example, " / ⁠ a / " = the phoneme "a"; " [⁠ a ⁠] " = the phone "a"

Phon and Phoneme

Phones belong to different phonemes if the phonetic difference in the respective language corresponds to a difference in meaning. This can be determined from words that only differ in one sound. If both words mean different things, the examined sounds are realizations of different phonemes (this is exactly what is meant by “differentiating meanings”).

  • Examples: "cat" / "paw"; "Lamb" / "lame"; “Bed” / “Bed”, “rest” (short a) / “rest” (long a).

If there are differences in meaning, the words are called “word pairs” or “ minimal pairs ”. It should also be mentioned here that phonemes are not only realized as sound segments, but can also appear as suprasegmental properties of syllables . This is the case with tonal languages that know different high or gradual tones on a syllable, which are clearly meaningful. One speaks here of tonemes , which are a subgroup of the phonemes.

With the help of this so-called minimal pair analysis, all phonemes of a language can be systematically recorded and identified: If the replacement of one sound by another leads to a change (or loss) of the meaning of the word, both sounds can be assigned to different phonemes. Phonemes, however, are not the sounds themselves; To put it simply, a phoneme can be understood as a group of sounds that native speakers of the respective language perceive as "roughly the same". They are therefore units abstracted from the individual sounds (phones) of a language. As such, they are not physical sounds in the true sense of the word, but have to be realized ("made audible") by appropriate allophones .

Phoneme and distinctive features

The phonemes are not atoms, but “contrast in certain sound properties”. The sound properties that distinguish one phoneme from another are also called distinctive features .

If the phoneme is referred to as the smallest meaning-differentiating unit, this can only refer to “the smallest units following one another in the sequence ”, while “a breakdown into even smaller features bundled simultaneously in the phoneme” is not excluded.

In phonological theories that primarily worked with distinctive features, however, there is actually no longer any need for the phoneme term, and symbols such as “/ p /” are only viewed as a practical abbreviation for a set of features.

Which sound properties are distinctive cannot simply be deduced from the sound, but is a property that is determined by the grammar of an individual language. For example, the contrast between the German words “Bass” and “Pass” is based on whether the plosive sound formed with the lips is voiced or unvoiced. In a language like Korean, for example, the same contrast does not form minimal pairs (one and the same phoneme is pronounced voiced when it is between two vowels and otherwise voiceless). Instead, Korean uses aspiration or the tense execution of a plosive sound as distinctive features; minimal contrasts are e.g. B. [pal] "foot" - [phal] "arm" - [ppal] "fast" (here "ph" is a single phonetic symbol for an aspirated p and "pp" is a single phonetic symbol for a tense p to understand). The aspiration of the plosive “p” is present in the German word “Pass”, but unlike in Korean, a pronunciation without a breath never results in another word in German.

Phoneme and different concrete realizations (allophones)

Regardless of whether phonemes are viewed as the result of a purely linguistic systematization or as mental entities, they are in any case abstractions of a concrete phonetic utterance. More precisely, it is a "class of sounds [...] which all have distinctive properties in common, but can differ in the non-distinctive."

This means that concrete realizations of phonemes can differ considerably from one another and are still assigned to one and the same phoneme. The realizations (instances) of a phoneme are also called allophones . According to what has been said, allophones can sometimes appear in different variants.

  • Example: This is the sound as the / ch / after / ⁠ u ⁠ / different than for a / ⁠ i ⁠ / , although there is a single phoneme. Reasons for more or less freely varying realizations are primarily dialectal differences and co- articulation effects - as in the example - as well as general peculiarities in the articulation of a speaker.

For a number of phonemes, however, there are phonological rules which, depending on the sound environment of a phoneme, clearly determine with which allophone it is to be realized. One speaks of (context-bound) combinatorial variants of a phoneme - in contrast to free variants of a phoneme .

  • Example: In German is the grapheme <ch>, which is generally for the phoneme / ⁠ ç ⁠ / stands, sometimes in the area of the hard palate , so palatal articulated ([ ɪç ] - "I"), but sometimes also further back in the area of ​​the soft palate ([ ax ] - "ach"). The rule is that [⁠ x ⁠] only to / a /, / o /, / u / and / au /, represents in all other cases [⁠ ç ⁠] .

The only decisive factor is the sound environment, differences in content between the words are irrelevant.

In such so-called combinatorial variants, both allophones are usually distributed in such a way that where one must be, the other must not be and vice versa (complementary distribution).

  • Example: "I" ([ ]) - "Roof" ([ dax ]).

If such rules lead to the fact that an actually distinctive feature loses its meaning-distinguishing function, one speaks of neutralization.

  • For example, the so-called devoicing in the German has the consequence that all voiced phonemes (eg. / ⁠ b ⁠ / , ⁠ / d ⁠ / and / ⁠ g ⁠ / ) are pronounced unvoiced end of the word; the relevant difference between voiced and unvoiced phonemes in other positions is neutralized ("Bund" and "bunt" are spelled differently, but pronounced identically ([ bʊnt ])).

Also assimilation processes often lead to neutralization.

Phonemes are therefore not only phonetically determined, but "linguistic elements which are determined by their position in the linguistic system, by their syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations, that is, by their environment and by their substitutability".

Definitions of Related Terms


Phoneme and grapheme are also grouped under the collective term "Distingem".


The phoneme is to be distinguished from the grapheme . The grapheme is the smallest meaningful unit of the written language.


The phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of the spoken language.

  • Example: In the lexeme “scarf”, ‹ sch › represents the phoneme / ʃ /, which consists of three individual letters.


The phoneme must be distinguished from the morpheme . The phoneme is defined as the smallest meaning-distinguishing linguistic unit, while the morpheme is defined as the smallest meaningful linguistic unit, since it contains a semantic content. The phonemes / r / and / t /, for example, differentiate the lexemes (words) “red” and “dead” as minimal pairs; they themselves have no meaning. In contrast, the two words (lexemes) mentioned have their own meaning and each form a morpheme. A morpheme usually consists of one or more phonemes that are notated in the written language as graphemes. The absence of a phoneme can be used as Morphemform ( null morpheme are called), such as when an inflection at the particular point includes phonemes, another is not.

Phonemes, phoneme classes, phoneme inventory, phoneme system

Phonemes and phoneme classes of the German spoken language

Examples of German phonemes:

/ p /, / t /, / k / (voiceless plosives )
/ m /, / n /, / ŋ / ( nasals )
/ a: /, / a /, / e: /, / ɛ / (long and short vowels )

The phonematic status in German is controversial. a. with the Schwa sounds (e-Schwa and a-Schwa), the glottal plosive sound ( also Knacklaut, English glottal stop ), the diphthongs (vowel double sounds with sliding movement from a starting vowel to an ending vowel) and the affricates (sequence of plosive and fricative, which are formed with the same organ). The numbers of vowel phonemes to be found in the research literature differ most widely (namely from 8 to 26).

Phoneme inventory

The entirety of all phonemes is also referred to as the "phoneme inventory", the size of which varies considerably from language to language. Most alphabet fonts are based on the phoneme inventory ; ideally, there is a 1-to-1 assignment of phonemes and letters.

Number of phonemes of the world's languages

Speakers use only a limited number of potential sounds that the human organ of speech can produce. Due to allophones, the number of phonemes to be distinguished is usually smaller than the number of sounds that can be identified in a single language. Different languages ​​differ significantly in the number of phonemes that are specific to their language system. The entire phonetic inventory in the languages ​​varies between only 11 in Rotokas and 10 - according to controversial analyzes - in Pirahã , the language with the fewest phonemes in the world, and up to 141 phonemes in ǃXóõ or! Xũ, the most phoneme- rich.

The number of phonemically distinctive vowels can be low as in Ubyx and Arrernte with only two or high as in the Bantu language Ngwe , which has 14 basic vowels, of which 12 differentiate between long and short, plus 6 nasalized vowels, also long and short, respectively makes a total of 38 phonemic vowels. ! Xóõ (! Xũ), on the other hand, already has 31 pure vowels, without adding the additional variations with regard to the vowel length due to pitches. With regard to the consonant phonemes, Puinave has only seven and Rotokas has six. ! Xóõ (! Xũ), on the other hand, has around 77 and Ubyx even 81 consonantic phonemes.

The most common vowel system consists of the five basic vowels / i /, / e /, / a /, / o /, / u /. The most common consonants are / p /, / t /, / k /, / m /, / n /. Very few languages ​​lack these consonants, so there is no / p / in Arabic , / t / is missing in Standard Hawaiian, Mohawk and Tlingit have no / p / and / m /, Hupa has neither / p / nor / k /, Colloquial Samoan has neither / t / nor / n /, whereas Rotokas and Quileute do not have the nasals / m / and / n /.

English has a wide variety of vowel phonemes (between 13 and 21, including the diphthongs). The 22 to 26 consonants, however, correspond to the average of most languages. Standard German has around 40 phonemes (around 20 vowel phonemes and 20 consonantic phonemes, depending on how they are counted).

Phoneme system

Phonetics enables phonemes to be understood as sets of (distinctive) features, to form phoneme classes based on selected features and to view the phoneme inventory as a phoneme system .

The features that distinguish phonemes are called "phonological features" as opposed to the "phonetic features" of phones.

Phonemes can be classified based on their characteristics . If there is a feature that distinguishes two phonemes from one another, it is called a distinctive feature.

  • Example: that is In German depending on phonological position distinction between Lenis and Fortis , or the distinction between voiced and unvoiced of plosives distinctive: [⁠ p ⁠] and [⁠ b ⁠] corresponding to the phonemes / p / and / b /, as they can be used to differentiate meanings (cf. “Pass” vs. “Bass”). On the other hand, the aspiration of plosives is not distinctive . [⁠ p ⁠] and [ P ] are both variants of the phoneme / ⁠ p ⁠ / ([ pas ] and [ Pas ] are synonymous). Alternatively, it can also be said that the property Leni or voicing has "phonemic value", whereas aspiration does not.

For some phonemes restrictions apply with respect to its position: In German about may / ⁠ ŋ ⁠ / do not show up on letters, / ⁠ h ⁠ / not at the end of a word.



According to the classical characterization of structuralism , phonemes are abstract units of a systematizing study of language.

Phonemes as mental units (Chomsky)

Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle established a psychological interpretation of the phonemes as mental units.

In the course of language acquisition, a child learns which phonetic features of a sound are decisive for the meaning of a word and which are not. The categories arising in the course of this process are viewed as mental equivalents (representations) of the originally purely linguistically defined phonemes. According to this view, phonemes have an independent existence in the mental language processing system of a speaker: The system actually uses these units for language processing. (A contrary hypothesis would be the assertion that the interaction of learned words and individual sound perceptions only creates the "impression" that phoneme categories are at work in the system.)

The influence of these phoneme categories on perception can be observed particularly well when dealing with a foreign language. Phonetic distinctions that do not play a role in their own language are not perceived by the untrained ear in other languages ​​or are incorrectly assigned to one and the same phoneme. Example: The Chinese / ⁠ r ⁠ / is retroflex formed, the Chinese / ⁠ l ⁠ / something like our / ⁠ l ⁠ / . When a German its sound / ⁠ r / ⁠ pronounce, this is of Chinese as / ⁠ l / ⁠ perceived, not as the Chinese retroflex / ⁠ r ⁠ / .

Phoneme variation

It happens that in certain words, one phoneme can be replaced by another without changing the meaning. This is called phoneme variation or phoneme fluctuation . It is relatively rare in the standard pronunciation norm. Where it is recognized in the standard language, it can also have an impact on the spelling.

Examples: Recognized in standard language (according to Pronunciation Duden and the relevant spelling dictionaries, sometimes as recognized regionalisms):

  • beyond - / 'jeːnzaɪts / or /' jɛnzaɪts / (different phonemes / eː / and / ɛ /)
  • Bullet or projectile - / gə'ʃɔs / or / gə'ʃoːs / (different phonemes / ɔ / and / o /)
  • Chick or chicks - / 'kyːkən / or /' kʏkən / (different phonemes / y /, and / ʏ /)
  • look or watch - / 'gʊkən / or /' kʊkən / (different phonemes / g / and / k /)

Standard language not recognized, but to be found in the colloquial language (according to pronunciation Duden):

  • Bad - / baːd /, also / bad / (different phonemes / aː / and / a /)
  • Respect - / re'spɛkt /, also / re'ʃpɛkt / (different phonemes / s / and / ʃ /)

Standard language partially or now recognized. The official vocabulary from 2006 notes: "Fun, (Austrian also) fun", in Switzerland, regardless of pronunciation, only "fun" is written:

  • Fun or fun - / ʃpaːs / or / ʃpas / (different phonemes / aː / and / a /)

Sign languages

The concept of the phoneme was evidently developed in the study of spoken languages . But sign languages ​​also have a certain inventory of sign- language phonemes. Because of the difference in modality (oral-auditory vs. manual-visual), this phoneme inventory is divided into the four parameters of hand shape , hand position , hand movement and place of execution , instead of vowels and consonants as in spoken languages. All signs are built up with at least one phoneme from each parameter and executed simultaneously. The type and number of phonemes can also vary in sign languages, so that a foreign sign language accent can also be recognized.

See also


  • Karl-Heinz Best : Sound and Phoneme Frequencies in German. In: Göttingen Contributions to Linguistics. 10/11, 2005, pp. 21-32.
  • Duden . Volume 6: Pronunciation dictionary. 4th, revised and updated edition. Dudenverlag, 2000, ISBN 3-411-04064-5 .
  • T. Alan Hall: Phonology. An introduction. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2000, ISBN 3-11-015641-5 .
  • Georg Heike: Phonology. Metzler, Stuttgart 1972, ISBN 3-476-10104-5 .
  • Roger Lass: Phonology. An introduction to basis concepts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1984, ISBN 0-521-23728-9 .
  • Katja Siekmann, Günther Thomé: The spelling mistake. Basics of orthographic error research and current developments. 2nd Edition. isb-Verlag, Oldenburg 2018, ISBN 978-3-942122-07-8 (phoneme-grapheme correspondences in German, pp. 239–247, 100,000 count).
  • Sven Staffeldt: Introduction to the phonetics, phonology and graphematics of German. A guide to academic teaching. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2010.
  • Sven Staffeldt: On the phoneme status of Schwa in German. An inventory. In: Studia Germanistica. 7, 2010, pp. 83-96 (as PDF at: ).
  • Günther Thomé, Dorothea Thomé: German words according to phonetic and written units. isb-Verlag, Oldenburg 2016, ISBN 978-3-942122-21-4 (with numerous tables and overviews of the frequency of phoneme-grapheme relationships in German, 128 p., € 14.80, excerpt from https: / / ).
  • G. Thomé, Dorothea Thomé: All sounds: overview poster. Basic concept. isb-Fachverlag, Oldenburg 2019, ISBN 978-3-942122-27-6 (The letters ß, q, v, x, y are not included, as only the most common characters for the sounds (phonemes) are shown in German at ).
  • Diana Šileikaitė-Kaishauri: Introduction to the phonetics and phonology of German. Vilniaus universitetas, 2015, ISBN 978-609-459-479-3 ( PDF ).

Web links

Commons : Phoneme  - collection of images, videos, and audio files
Wiktionary: Phoneme  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. also: entirety, bundle, abstraction, type. According to Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 84: "abstract sound class".
  2. ^ Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 82.
  3. ^ Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 82 (emphasis in the original).
  4. ^ H. Gadler: Practical Linguistics. 3. Edition. 1998, p. 60.
  5. ^ Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 83.
  6. Piroska Kocsány: Basic Linguistics course: a workbook for beginners. Fink, Paderborn 2010, p. 84.
  7. ^ H. Gadler: Practical Linguistics. 3. Edition. 1998, p. 59.
  8. ^ W. Ulrich: Basic Linguistic Concepts. 5th edition. 2002, Distingem.
  9. ^ W. Ulrich: Basic Linguistic Concepts. 5th edition. 2002, Graphem.
  10. ^ Sven Staffeldt: On the phoneme status of Schwa in German. An inventory. In: Studia Germanistica. 7, 2010, pp. 83-96. (as PDF at: )
  11. ^ For a compact overview of the phoneme system of German, see also Sven Staffeldt: Introduction to Phonetics, Phonology and Graphematics of German. A guide to academic teaching. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2010, pp. 72–85, the numbers can also be compared there.
  12. ^ D. Crystal: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. 3. Edition. Cambridge 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-73650-3 , p. 173.
  13. ^ Marianne Mithun: The Languages ​​of Native North America. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2001, ISBN 0-521-29875-X , p. 20.
  14. D. Clément: Basic Linguistic Knowledge. 2nd Edition. 2000, p. 214 f.
  15. ^ Wikipedia: Morris Hall .