What are the differences between Phoneme, Phone and Allophone?

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Speaking in phonetic terms, a phone is quite simply a speech sound. This can be absolutely any sound or gesture, and it is the broadest of these terms since its meaning does not hinge on whether or not it changes the descriptive meaning of the language in which it is used.

A phoneme, on the other hand, is a phonetic sound that would change the meaning of the word that it is used in if it were swapped with another. For example, pear and bear have two completely different meanings, though they are only separated by the phonemes /p/ and /b/.

Allophones are different spoken sounds for the same phoneme, and typically do not have bearing on the meaning of the word in language. In fact, speakers of native language and laymen in the field of phonetics typically are not aware of different allophones within a phoneme.

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All of these words and their corresponding definitions have to do with the study of phonetics and linguistics. Both the study of phonetics, which focuses on the details of human speech, and the study of linguistics, which focuses on the structural elements of language, require an understanding of these terms.

A phone is any sound made during speech in any language at all, but it does not necessarily mean anything specific. In contrast, a phoneme is specific to a language, and different phonemes in English and other languages do actually mean different things. Allophones are different versions of specific phonemes, or spoken sounds in speech. They do not necessarily change the meaning of the phoneme, and in fact, sometimes people use different allophones in their own speech without even realizing it.

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These concepts in linguistics are often confused, but they are quite distinct.

A phoneme is a unit of sound that differentiates one word from another. For example, the phoneme “t“ in “Tim” differentiates it from “him”. Likewise, “h” is the distinguishing phoneme in “him.”

A phone is any unit of sound in English. It need not change the meaning of a word if replaced.

An allophone is a variety of a phoneme, pronounced slightly differently to other varieties but having the same outcome and representing the same thing. For example, the letter “p” in “push” is pronounced with aspiration, more strongly than the “p” in “spit,” but these remain two versions of the same phoneme. Exchanging one for the other will not actually alter the meaning of the word.

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