Our speech sounds can produce a wide variety of speech sounds. However , each language makes use of only a selected group of sounds .These selected sounds are organized in different ways in different languages .This selection and organization of speech sounds in an individual language is called Phonology .
Every language has a definite number of distinctive sound units .These sound units constitute the phonemes of that language .They are the most basic and smallest elements in the expression system of a language .A phoneme may be defined as the minimal ,distinctive sound unit of a language .By minimal we mean that it cannot be sub-divide ; by distinctive we mean that , when one phoneme is substituted by another it produces a meaning change .Thus the phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that forms the basis of distinction between words in a language .The two words , for example , bat and cat are distinguished and differentiated by the initial phonemes of these two words , /b/ and /k/ .
When /p/ is substituted by /b/ in the word pit it becomes bit . With substitution , a different word with a different meaning is formed . Thus /p/ and /b/ are contrastive in English and hence they are two phonemes in English. Phonemic symbols are enclosed with in slant lines ; phonetic symbols within square brackets indicate the precise phonetic qualities of sounds represented by the symbols . It is also to be noted that phonemes refers to sounds and never to spellings .
The English RP has a system of forty four phonemes .Hindi has forty six phonemes and Malayalam has fifty two .All these languages have their own language specific phonemes .As phonemes are contrastive units of sound in the sound system of a particular language , they have validity only in that language.
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