Listen carefully to each sound made in the word bat. Each sound that you hear is called a phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest sound in a word. Phonemes are separate from spelling so the focus is on speaking and listening.
A phoneme is different in many languages. When you learn a new language, your ears and mouth do a lot of strange things that you may not do with your first language. An English speaker learns to roll the tongue to speak Spanish and changes breathing patterns to speak German.
Babies who are learning to speak a language observe the mouths and sounds around them very carefully. While people are talking to them, they are watching, listening and practising to say each phoneme all day.
Phonemes can be consonants which fall under plosives, nasals, fricatives, affricates, and approximants. Phonemes can be vowels which fall under monophthongs, diphthongs, close, open, front, central, back, rounded, unrounded, tense, lax and vowels. For the purpose of keeping things very simple, let us look at 10 simple things to know about a phoneme.
10 simple things to know about a phoneme
1. Part of a syllable
A phoneme is the smallest sound you hear in a syllable. A syllable is a part of a word that has at least one vowel sound within it e.g. ape has one syllable, apple has two, and applesauce has three. There are 6 types of syllables:
- open syllable ends in a vowel (she, motel, revise)
- closed syllable ends with a consonant (fruit, welcome, compose)
- vowel consonant e syllable (wake, compete, dislike)
- r-controlled syllable (car, resort, portable)
- vowel team syllable (laugh, goat, meaning)
- consonant -le syllable (simple, table, cycle)
2. One sound in blended sounds
A phoneme is simply one part of blended sounds in a syllable. Listeners must separate these sounds to spot each phoneme. The word oat has two phonemes /oa/-/t/. The word dough also has two phonemes, /d-/ough/. Note that the digraph oa and the 4-letter grapheme ough both sound the same.
3. Hard sound
A phoneme can have a hard sound. This is made with some effort in the mouth and throat. The sounds made with the letters, b, c, d, g and k are hard sounds. So, the words bad, cab and kid have two hard phonemes.
4. Soft sound
A soft phoneme is made in the mouth and with little effort in the throat. The sounds made with the letters, c, f, g, j and l have soft sounds. So, the words cell, fall, gel and laugh have two soft phonemes. Note that c and g have both hard and soft sounds. Soft c sounds like s and soft g sounds like j.
5. Long sound
A phoneme can be long. Long sounds relate to vowels. The sound made when you say the letters a, e, i, o and u are long vowel sounds. You hear these sounds in the words, ape, weigh, eat, field, ice, psyche, oat, though, use and youth. Note that ei, ea, ie, i-e, oa, ough and ou have one sound. The letter y is both a consonant and vowel. It is a long i in psyche.
6. Short sound
A phoneme can be short. Short sounds relate to vowels. They are the sounds made that are different from those of the letters a, e, i, o and u. You hear these sounds in the words, act, egg, hear, said, ink, physical, got, born, gone, cup and cop. Note that ea, ai, o, u, or and o-e have one sound. The letter y is a short vowel sound in the word physical.
7. Voiced sound
A voiced phoneme is a sound that starts in the throat. This topic is extensive so let’s make it simple. Hold your throat and pronounce each phoneme slowly. Feel the vibration on your hand as you say the first sound in the words bad, dog, this, that, wave, van, are, ear, it, of, up and zig zag. Note that all vowels are voiced sounds.
8. Voiceless sound
A voiceless phoneme is a sound made in the mouth. You may compare these sounds with the voiced sounds by holding your throat to see that there is no vibration. Notice the sound being made in your mouth as you say the first sound in the words cell, far, hat, pat, tip, thin and think.
9. Stressed sound
A stressed sound is a phoneme or syllable that is louder, higher and longer than other sounds in a word. Stressed sounds differ in several varieties of English. By stressing particular phonemes and syllables, speakers have unique accents. In the word breakfast, the first syllable break is stressed. The phonemes /b/-/r/-/ea/ however are stressed even more than the /k/ sound in break.
10. Unstressed sound
An unstressed sound is a phoneme or syllable that is softer, lower and shorter than other sounds in a word. Unstressed sounds differ in several varieties of English. In the word breakfast, the second syllable fast is unstressed. Many times, phonemes and syllables that are unstressed are dropped altogether in many dialects like the final /g/ in hangin’.
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These are 10 simple things to know about a phoneme. Knowing these vital points can help you with languages if you want to learn a new one, teach one you already know or study the introduction to linguistics. Have fun.
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