Phoneme vs Grapheme
For those who love to learn languages knowing the difference between phoneme and grapheme can be of great help. To a large number of these language learners, learning languages could rather mean learning how to communicate through that particular language. Nonetheless, there is another group of language learners who wish to step beyond the surface meaning of language learning known to everyone into its rather deeper level; not just learning languages, but learning about languages, by which means they learn about the mechanism of languages. Linguistics: the scientific study of language, is the discipline specifically defines this kind of language learning. Linguists attempt to study through languages, their mechanisms and structures. Speaking of structures, every language is formed of sentences that are formed of words. Sounds and letters make up words. This article seeks to explore two fundamental phenomena in linguistics: phoneme and grapheme.
What is a Phoneme?
A phoneme is simply a sound. Linguists rather specifically define it as ‘the smallest contrastive unit in the sound systemof a language.’ Phonemes do not carry meaning, yet they combine with other phonemes to form larger meaningful units such as morphemes (the smallest grammatical unit in a language) and words. Phonemes matter as a change in phoneme could denote a different meaning. For example, the word ‘boy’ is phonetically written as / bɔɪ/ and if you change the phoneme /b/ into /t/, it denotes the word ‘toy’ (phonemic transcription /tɔɪ/) meaning something totally different. The significance of phonemes in the sound system a language is thus marked. Every language has a fixed amount of phonemes and English has about 44 phonemes that can be represented by a large number of spelling alternatives. In written formats, phonemes are generally written between “/”: e.g. /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, etc. The symbols of the phonemes are represented by the IPA : International Phonemic Alphabet , featuring almost all the phonemes that are found in languages in the world.
What is a Grapheme?
A grapheme is the smallest fundamental unit in the written language which could be equivalent to a phoneme that is the smallest contrastive sound unit (spoken language). Graphemes simply mean the letters or symbols of any writing system in the world. Graphemes may or may not have a meaning in them. Grapheme refers to a single letter of the alphabet, but on occasion two or three alphabetic letters could be considered as one grapheme; they are called a digraph and a trigraph respectively. For example, the word ‘ship’ has four letters and three phonemes /ʃɪp/, yet it has only three graphemes as ‘sh’ is considered as a digraph. On the other way, a single grapheme can represent more than one phoneme. For instance, ‘tux’ has two graphemes and three phonemes, / tʌks/. Thereby, graphemes do not always represent the same number of phonemes or alphabetic letters.
What is the difference between Phoneme and Grapheme?
• Phoneme is the smallest sound unit of a language while a grapheme is the smallest fundamental unit in written language.
• Phonemes represent sounds, and graphemes include alphabetical letters, characters, numerical digits, etc.
• A change in a phoneme could at times affect the meaning of a word and a change in a grapheme always alter the meaning.
• Phonemes carry distinctive features.
• Graphemes do not always reflect the same number of phonemes. Sometimes a single grapheme could represent two phonemes or two graphemes together (digraph) could represent only one phoneme.
• Phonemes are not visible, but graphemes are in most cases visible.
Considering these differences and specific features, it is comprehensible that phonemes and graphemes are two different elements in a language with their prime difference being phonemes representing sounds and graphemes representing written letters, numbers or symbols.