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We know that phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in speech, and that in the IPA, each character represents only one sound. Wouldn't 'air' be considered two sounds - the combination of the sound /ae/ and /r/?

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    You've misunderstood 'phoneme'. A phoneme is the contrastive unit of sound which can be used to change meaning. – Decapitated Soul Sep 30 '20 at 7:45
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You give three different example words, and the 'air' sound is not identical in each of the three. Please remember that, relative to my answers.

Your headline asks: Why is the sound 'air'...considered a phoneme?

The sound 'air' is not considered to be a phoneme. It is a combination of vowel and consonant sounds. Any combination of vowel sound and consonant sound is not a phoneme, since the vowel and consonant units are separate and distinct.

Your text asks: Wouldn't 'air' be considered two sounds - the combination of the sound [sic] /ae/ and /r/?

No, 'air' is rarely considered to be two sounds—it is typically considered to be three.

In all my sources, 'air' is signified by three IPA sounds when the word's final /r/ is voiced—it is signified as two sounds, when the word's final 'r' is unvoiced.

The sound 'air' is written—in every source I checked—with separate IPA characters representing both of the vowel sounds in its diphthong, and another IPA character representing its consonant sound. For all your example words, in all my sources, the vowel sound appears as the diphthong ɛə. That's two vowels elided into a diphthong—two sounds, in this case two phonemes. The consonant sound is invariably signified as ɹ for American English—one sound, in this case one phoneme.

In some words, the /r/ sound is not voiced. My sources leave the terminal /r/ sound off of their IPA signs that signify the sound for the word pear. My sources do list the /r/ sound (that is, the IPA character ɹ) for your other example words, chair and where. So, in pear the 'air' sound is two phonemes; in chair and where the 'air' sound is three phonemes.

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  • Hi @Jesse Berry, thank you for your comprehensive answer. According to your answer, I now understand that each character in the IPA symbol produces 'one sound', or one 'Phoneme'. (Please correct me if I misinterpreted this) [link] (dyslexia-reading-well.com/44-phonemes-in-english.html) However, according to the tables in this site, each phoneme seems to be represented by their respective IPA symbol, which can comprise more than one letter. Does this mean that each phoneme does not in fact define each unique sound? – Lee Zhiyuan Sep 30 '20 at 8:31
  • You then went on to elaborate that the three words which I thought sounded the same were in fact different. I arrived at the conclusion that the 'air' in the three words 'chair', 'pear' and 'where' from the tables in the abovementioned link as well. Is the website oversimplifying things, which led to my confusion? Could you please, if it is not too much trouble, cite your sources? They seem to be more accurate than the one I am currently referring too. That would be immensely helpful. Thank you once again for your answer. – Lee Zhiyuan Sep 30 '20 at 8:35
  • It's incorrect to say that "each character in the IPA produces...one 'Phoneme'". Please remember that the IPA writes some phonemes as two symbols (making one symbol out of two symbols). In we have two vowel symbols for one phoneme, but in ɛə we have two vowel symbols for two phonemes. Even though o and ʊ are both separate symbols (different phonemes), the combination should be interpreted as one symbol (one phoneme). Only certain pairs of IPA symbols combine to be one phoneme, always consistent for those pairs (there are nine vowel combinations and two consonant combinations). – Jesse Berry Sep 30 '20 at 9:23
  • Looking closely at your linked page, I find its IPA symbols list to be incomplete—that is causing you trouble. It is missing the symbol ɛ which is frequently used when signifying sounds made in American English. My sources are mostly written sources which I personally possess, but a reliable online source is Wiktionary.These charts at Wikipedia are also good (the vowel chart may seem confusing, but look to its far-lefthand and far-righthand columns). I wish you the best. – Jesse Berry Sep 30 '20 at 9:50

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