The Differences Between a Phone, Phoneme And an Allophone

To understand the differences between these three terms, you need to know what each of them means. So we will take a look at the terms and explain each of them.

We need to mention these three terms are used in phonology and phonetics, which are part of linguistics, the study of languages.

What is a Phone?

This is the actual sound of a word that you can hear and is represented in phonology with square brackets surrounding it. In this part of the phonetics study, it is the part that studies how humans make the sound of a specific word.

An example can be the word puff, so when you speak the word aloud, that sound is called the phone. So you are speaking out the word’s mental presentation, the phoneme, which is a symbol representing the sound and makes an actual sound.

This is represented in the symbol that is written in the square brackets, and it is written as it sounds, like this: [pʌf]


Phonemes are usually written in slashes to distinguish them from phones. It is the mental representation of a specific word. This means it is the mental image we store in our brains of the specific word and is associated with the sound of the word.

A phoneme is defined as: “the smallest unit that discerns meaning between sounds in any given language, like in the example, puff, /pʌf/. So in the transcription system used by the International Transcription Association, this is a broad transcription of the word puff.


An allophone is the different ways you can say a word or basically another way to pronounce a phoneme. This can be seen in the various ways different speakers of the English language pronounce ‘water.’

An American English speaker will pronounce water with a “d” instead of like other English speakers with a “t” in the center of the word. These different ways in which a word can be pronounced are then called an Allophone.

The Difference Between Them?

So the difference between these terms then is a phoneme is the mental representation of the sound of the word. While the phone is a sound representation of the phoneme or the word’s sound, it is called a phonetic depiction.

The final term, the allophone, is the different ways in which the phoneme can be represented or the different ways a word is pronounced.

Concluding Thoughts

While these are the building blocks of phonetics and are not easy to understand, they are necessary for those studying phonology. Hopefully, this will help you understand the basic differences and whet your appetite for further study in linguistics.

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