Phone (phonetics)

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In phonetics and linguistics, the word phone may refer to any speech sound or gesture considered as a physical event without regard to its place in the phonology of a language. In contrast, a phoneme is a set of phones or a set of sound features that are thought of as the same element within the phonology of a particular language. (Crystal 1971, p. 180).

In the context of spoken languages, a phone is an unanalyzed sound of a language (Loos et al. 1997). A phone is a speech segment that possesses distinct physical or perceptual properties, and serves as the basic unit of phonetic speech analysis. Phones are generally either vowels or consonants.

A phonetic transcription (based on phones) is enclosed within square brackets ([ ]), rather than the slashes (/ /) of a phonemic transcription (based on phonemes). Phones (and often phonemes also) are commonly represented using symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

For example, the English word spin consists of four phones, [s], [p], [ɪ] and [n], and thus has the phonetic representation [spɪn]. The word pin has three phones; in this case the initial sound is aspirated, and so can be represented as [pʰ]; the word's phonetic representation will then be [pʰɪn]. (Precisely which features are shown in a phonetic representation will depend on whether a narrow or broad transcription is being used, and to which features the writer wishes to draw attention in the context.)

When phones are considered to be realizations of the same phoneme, they are called allophones of that phoneme (more information on the methods of making such assignments can be found under Phoneme). In English, for example, [p] and [pʰ] are considered allophones of a single phoneme, written as /p/. The phonemic transcriptions of the above two words will consequently be /spɪn/ and /pɪn/, aspiration no longer being shown, since it is not distinctive.

See also[edit]


  • Crystal, David (1971). Linguistics. Baltimore: Penguin.
  • Eugene E. Loos, general editor (September 18, 1997). "What is a phone?". LinguaLinks: Glossary of linguistic terms. SIL International. Retrieved 16 December 2013.