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What is the difference between a phoneme and an allophone?

The difference between a phoneme and an allophone is that a phoneme is an individual unit of sound in a word, whereas an allophone is one articulation of a phoneme. Individual phonemes may have different allophones, such as the phoneme /t/, which is articulated, at least in American English, differently in the words "hot" and "top."

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A phoneme is the individual level of sound in speech. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, numerous theories have emerged in the attempt to precisely define the phoneme and provide an accurate model of its use across different languages. Linguistic schools in both the former Soviet Union and the United States developed a standard definition of the term around the 1950s: a phoneme is the smallest phonic (having to do with sound) constituent of a word form, one which cannot be broken down into smaller constituents. A phoneme is thus differentiated from something like a syllable, which can be broken down into constituent phonemes. For example, in the word “cantaloupe”, there are three distinguishable syllables (“can,” “ta,” and “loupe”), because syllables are broken down according to the presence of a vowel. However, each of these can further be broken down into the individuals sounds (phonemes) that make up the syllable (“can” = /c/, /a/, and /n/).

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