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I've read several descriptions but I still don't understand. From what I can gather, the main (or only) difference is phonemics is not concerned with "nondistinctive elements" but I don't know what that is.

Also, is there such a thing as a "phonemic transcription" (as opposed to "phonetic transcription")?

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Phonemics is associated with phonemes. Phonetics with all sounds. Do you get what a phoneme is? I'm not sure what someone could say beyond the dictionary definitions. – Jon Hanna Feb 15 '13 at 22:15
Related:… – Mitch Feb 15 '13 at 22:24

2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Phonemics, or Phonology, is the study of the distribution of sound systems in human languages. A Phoneme is a particular set of sounds produced in a particular language and distinguishable by native speakers of that language from other (sets of) sounds in that language. That's what "distinctive" means -- the English phonemes /n/ and /ŋ/ can be told apart by native speakers of English, because we use these sounds to distinguish different words -- sin ~ sing, ton ~ tongue, run ~ rung, etc. This would be impossible if these phonemes weren't distinctive in English.

Phonetics, on the other hand, is simply the physiological and acoustic study of speech sounds, covering all sounds used in all languages, and relying only on the physical characteristics of the sounds, without regard to their systemic patterns in various languages.

Phonemes, the unit of (this variety of) phonemics, encased in /slashes/, are always specific to a language. Since phonetics is a natural science, phones, the unit of phonetics, encased in [square brackets], are universal, and are not specific to any language.

Thus, we say that there is such a thing as "the phone [p]", because phones are defined universally, but that there is no such thing as "the phoneme /p/", because phonemes are relative to languages. Thus "the French phoneme /p/" and "the English phoneme /p/" both exist and are meaningful, and the phone [p] is represented in both of them; but they are not the same sets of sounds, and thus not the same phonemes.

Edit: The set of American English phonemes (from Kenyon and Knott) is available here.

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There are significant similarities among phonological and morphological terminology; they were developed at the same time by the same linguists for more or less the same purposes. – John Lawler Feb 15 '13 at 22:52
When you say "there is no such thing as the phoneme /p/", I take it that you mean there's no such thing as the phoneme /p/ outside of the discussion a given language? – Araucaria Jun 7 at 10:15
Exactly. "The phoneme /b/" is meaningless, whereas "the French/English/Hindi phoneme /b/" is meaningful, although every language has a different phoneme /b/ (if they have one -- some don't). – John Lawler Jun 7 at 13:56

Consider the letter A.

Now consider these:

enter image description here

All of these forms are very different; but they are all understood as the letter A.

Everybody pronounces the language differently; but what people hear is a very small number of “meaningful” sounds—phonemes. Just as we map the various physical realizations we see onto a small fixed inventory of characters, we map the physical sounds we hear onto a small fixed inventory of phonemes.

Phonemes are to pronunciation as the abstract alphabet is to the enormous variety of scripts and fonts.

Phonetics studies the sounds we actually produce in speech. Phonemics studies the way we understand those sounds.

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Though phoneme is not a term properly used for typeface variations, but for speech alone. – John Lawler Feb 15 '13 at 22:47
@StoneyB: I got that you were using an analogy. :) – Barry Fruitman Feb 15 '13 at 23:02
@BarryFruitman John Lawler was drawing my attention to the Basic Rule: anything which can be misunderstood will be. – StoneyB Feb 15 '13 at 23:03
This explanation helped me most; no disrespect to John Lawler, but the typographical analogy was very useful. So a phone is the sound we actually produce, and a phoneme is an abstract structure that encompasses a group of phones? – Leo King Jul 14 '14 at 21:57
@LeoKing A range, rather than a group: the phones are all sorta alike, but not exactly - and some may even be different enough that you notice the difference. For instance, you often "I" as pronounced by Southerners like me written "Ah" - the phone we use is a monophthong in the neighborhood of [a], where the rest of the country uses a diphthong [aɪ]. And folks from across the Hudson from NYC are popularly supposed to say "Joisey", with a vowel which is actually something like [əɪ] where most of the rest of the country says something like [ɜr]. – StoneyB Jul 14 '14 at 23:03

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