What is the word used to describe a particular type of sound made with language?

Is it a "tone"?

For example, the "ai" in Thailand produces a sound.

And, what is the word for this language system of producing different sounds from different combinations of characters? Why does it seem like same set of characters can produce different sounds based on which words they are in?

3 Answers 3


You're possibly confusing a few different concepts:

A phoneme is an 'underlying sound building block'.

A digraph is a two-letter combination that represents a particular phoneme or has a particular value/use. (You can then have trigraphs etc, but in reality, in common parlance, you can just refer to "letter combinations".) So in your example, you could say that the 'ai' digraph represents the phoneme /aI/.

A grapheme is basically a "distinct letter" although arguably the term doesn't work terribly well in practice (are "é" and "e" separate graphemes or not in English?)

You can then talk about whether a language with an alphabetic writing system has a close grapheme-phoneme correspondence.

In principle, you could talk about a bijective or non-bijective orthography, but in reality these terms are not very useful: practically no language actually has a perfect grapheme-phoneme correspondence and virtually all languages will lie somewhere on a gradient of non-perfect grapheme-phoneme correspondence.

In other words, you're asking for a special term for what is basically the usual case for languages with alphabetic writing systems, so to a large extent, the term is simply "alphabetic writing system".


I believe you are looking for phoneme as here:

The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning, as the m of mat and the b of bat in English.

Writing systems that compose the tokens of language by describing the sounds use what are termed phonetic writing systems, in contrast to pictographic and ideographic writing systems such as are commonly used in much of East Asia.

  • difference between phoneme and tone? is there a name for our language system that produces different phonemes based on different combinations of characters? Sep 3, 2013 at 1:15
  • @YolomMcSwageth - Do you mean spelling?
    – Jim
    Sep 3, 2013 at 1:31
  • @PieterGeerkens - The type of writing system is essentially just "alphabetic": as I mention, it's really the norm, not the exception, that an alphabetic writing system potentially maps combinations of letters on to phonemes. I'd avoid the term "phonetic alphabet", as in linguistics it really means something else. Sep 3, 2013 at 1:51

It is really quite impossible to know what you’re actually asking here, because you are misusing a lot of concept and words.

  1. Language does not make sounds; humans make sounds that combine to make (or be) language.
  2. Characters and letters don’t make sound either; they are various types of attempts at trying to represent the sounds made by humans when using language, in a way that can be written down on a piece of paper (or carved into wooden tablets or stones, etc.). They do not necessarily actually represent anything at all.

The reason it seems like different characters/letters can produce different sounds in different words is that they can. Letters are just abstract representations of the sounds used in language. Since writing (unlike speech) is usually intended to enable communication between people far apart, speaking different dialects and sometimes even different languages, it has always been important that written language be more or less codified into some kind of written standard. These standards are not as quick to evolve as the spoken language, exactly because they are artificial and have to be learnt by the users: if they changed as constantly and quickly as the spoken language, everyone would have their work cut out for them just trying to keep up and learn the new forms.

As such, spoken language can often change quite drastically, while the written language stays (almost) the same. English, for example, went through a massive sound change a few hundred years ago, called the Great Vowel Shift, which has had an enormous impact on how English words are pronounced—but the writing system remained more or less unchanged. Since this vowel change meant that what was once just a simple vowel [a] could now have become at least three or four different vowels (depending on the context it was originally found in), and since the spelling did not change, you eventually had a system where the letter ‹a› can stand for a whole bunch of different sounds.

The most important point: This has nothing to do with ‘language’ as such. Language is a spoken thing, the thing we use to speak to each other. Writing is not ‘language’, it is a secondary abstraction of language, and it does not ‘make’ sounds. It only attempts (usually quite poorly) to represent them.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.