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What is a Phoneme?

Updated: Feb 15, 2023


If your child receives speech therapy, you may have heard the term ‘phoneme’. It is important to understand what a phoneme is, and how Speech-Language Pathologists separate sounds to evaluate and treat them.


What is a phoneme?

  • A phoneme is the smallest, individual speech sound in a language, such as the /b/ sound in "boy," or the /g/ sound in "go." Speech sounds are indicated with slashes.

  • These sounds are organized and represented by symbols using a notation system called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

  • Although many IPA representations correspond to the alphabetical symbols, some phonemes have a different symbol, especially vowel sounds!

Why is this important?

  • Speech therapists use this notation system to describe how a child is incorrectly producing sounds or words! It is a way to see how they are straying from the normal production.

For example, if a child is having trouble with the “r” sound and using the “w” sound instead, a speech therapist might notate the word “ride” as /waɪd/

  • Knowing the terminology and physiology of how certain sounds are produced can be helpful when modeling proper speech for your developing children. This is because many sounds that children might struggle with are produced with a closed mouth or in a way that the tongue cannot be clearly seen. However, modeling can be used with any child, even if they do not have a language delay. Refer to attached sources to learn more about articulation and modeling good speech!

In this article, we will show a common consonant sound in which the alphabetical symbol and IPA symbol match, two different vowel sounds, a phoneme that combines two consonant sounds, and how each sounds are produced.


/m/
  • The /m/ sound corresponds to its alphabetical representation “m.” This is the first sound in “mom,” “milk,” and “mystery.”

  • In its simplest terms, this sound is called a voiced bilabial.

    • Voiced - requires the vibration of the vocal cords (producing a sound)!

    • Bi - two

    • Labial - lips

    • When combined, this means that your two lips are together, and your vocal cords are producing sound.

/i/ vs. /I/
  • In the alphabet, these two symbols both mean the letter I, but one is just capitalized.

  • In the IPA, these two have different sounds!

  • The /i/ is the vowel sound in “key,” “piece,” and “need.”

  • The /I/ is the vowel sound in “win,” “kid,” and “lip.”

  • Vowels have very specific descriptions, taking into account the tongue, the lips, and the tenseness of your vocal cords. At this time, we will mainly focus on where the tongue is in the mouth and the shape of the lips during the production of the vowel.

/ʃ/
  • The /ʃ/ phoneme makes the “sh” sound. This is the first sound in “shoe” and “short,” and the last sound in “trash.”

  • In its simplest terms, this sound is called a voiceless, alveo-palatal fricative.

    • Voiceless - no vibration of vocal cords, just air blowing through.

    • Alveo-palatal - describes the position of the tongue in the mouth. The tongue should be touching both the hard palate and the ridge that connects to it.

    • Fricative - describes a way a consonant is produced by using the tongue and teeth to partially block air flow out of the mouth. This makes the “sh” sound.

We hope this helps you understand a little more about how Speech-Language Pathologists analyze, describe, and talk about speech sounds. Please take a look at the following resources for more information about speech sound production.


/s/
  • The /s/ sound corresponds to its alphabetical representation “s.” This is the first sound in “sun,” “sister,” “silly.”

  • In its simplest terms, this sound is called a voiceless alveolar silibant.

    • Voiceless - there is no vibration of the vocal cords, just air leaving the mouth (If you produce the /s/ with voicing it becomes the /z/ sound!)

    • Alveolar - describes the position of the tongue in the mouth. The tongue should be almost touching the alveolar ridge, or the ridge between your teeth and hard palate. (When the tong is too far forward, this is what is commonly called a 'lisp'.)

    • Silibant - a fancy way of saying a hissing sound!

    • When combined, the tongue should be almost touching the ridge, and a hissing sound is made by pushing air out of the mouth.


/æ/
  • The /æ/ vowel corresponds to its alphabetical representation “a.” However, this symbol only describes the short “a” sound, as in “bad,” “laugh,” and “cat.”

  • This vowel is called a near-open front unrounded vowel. As you can see, vowels have very specific descriptions, taking into account the tongue, the lips, and the tenseness of your vocal cords. At this time, we will mainly focus on where the tongue is in the mouth and the shape of the lips during the production of the vowel.

  • As indicated by the descriptor “front,” the tongue is positioned towards the front of the mouth. The tongue is also rested towards the bottom of the mouth.

  • The lips are described by the term “unrounded,” which simply means the mouth is open and the lips are relaxed.

  • These characteristics of the tongue and lips along with the tenseness of the vocal cords work together to create the unique vowel sound /æ/!


/tʃ/
  • The /tʃ/ phoneme corresponds to the “ch” sound. This is the first sound in “chat,” “chip,” and “choose.”

  • As indicated by its phonetic symbols, the /tʃ/ is a combination of the /t/ and /ʃ/ ("sh") phonemes. As a result, the position of the tongue and lips and the unvoiced qualities are similar!

  • In its simplest terms, this sound is called a voiceless alveo-palatal affricate.

  • Voiceless - no vibration of vocal cords, just air blowing through.

  • Alveo-palatal - describes the position of the tongue in the mouth. The tongue should be touching both the hard palate and the ridge that connects to it.

  • Affricate - describes a way a consonant is created by producing a stop followed by a fricative. The tongue stops or blocks the airflow by touching the alveolar ridge and then releases the blockage so that air is released at higher pressure to create the /t/ sound. Then the air is partially blocked by the tongue and teeth to produce the fricative "sh" sound. By combining these two, the tongue blocks air completely (like a stop), and then allows air to partially flow through (like a fricative).


We hope this helps you understand a little more about how Speech-Language Pathologists analyze, describe, and talk about speech sounds.


Knowing the terminology and physiology of how certain sounds are produced can be helpful when modeling proper speech for your developing children. This is because many sounds that children might struggle with are produced with a closed mouth or in a way that the tongue cannot be clearly seen. However, modeling can be used with any child, even if they do not have a language delay.




 

Gracie Lee is a rising Junior at the University of Alabama studying Communicative Disorders with a minor in Business. She plans to become a Speech-Language Pathologist and specialize in aural rehabilitation. In her spare time, Gracie likes to read, bake, and go to concerts with her friends.






Skyrocket Pediatric Therapy Foundation (SPTF) does not provide medical or legal advice or services. SPTF provides general information about developmental disabilities and developmental therapies as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. SPTF has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of SPTF.

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