On the Use/Misuse of the Term ‘Phoneme’

Roger K. Moore, Lucy Skidmore


The term ‘phoneme’ lies at the heart of speech science and technology, and yet it is not clear that the research community fully appreciates its meaning and implications. In particular, it is suspected that many researchers use the term in a casual sense to refer to the sounds of speech, rather than as a well defined abstract concept. If true, this means that some sections of the community may be missing an opportunity to understand and exploit the implications of this important psychological phenomenon. Here we review the correct meaning of the term ‘phoneme’ and report the results of an investigation into its use/misuse in the accepted papers at INTERSPEECH-2018. It is confirmed that a significant proportion of the community (i) may not be aware of the critical difference between ‘phonetic’ and ‘phonemic’ levels of description, (ii) may not fully understand the significance of ‘phonemic contrast’, and as a consequence, (iii) consistently misuse the term ‘phoneme’. These findings are discussed, and recommendations are made as to how this situation might be mitigated.


 DOI: 10.21437/Interspeech.2019-2711

Cite as: Moore, R.K., Skidmore, L. (2019) On the Use/Misuse of the Term ‘Phoneme’. Proc. Interspeech 2019, 2340-2344, DOI: 10.21437/Interspeech.2019-2711.


@inproceedings{Moore2019,
  author={Roger K. Moore and Lucy Skidmore},
  title={{On the Use/Misuse of the Term ‘Phoneme’}},
  year=2019,
  booktitle={Proc. Interspeech 2019},
  pages={2340--2344},
  doi={10.21437/Interspeech.2019-2711},
  url={http://dx.doi.org/10.21437/Interspeech.2019-2711}
}