Psychiatry & Psychology--General/Phonemes vs. letters?



Are phonemes and letters the same thing? My textbook uses the word phonemes exclusively to talk about units of sound. But aren't letters also just units of sound? Or are phonemes and letters only synonymous in languages that have unique sounds to every written letter?
For example, in English A in Apple and A in Aimless are the same written letter, but produce different sounds. In Hungarian A in Alma is it's one letter and sound and A in Ákos is a separate letter and a separate sound.
  Are phonemes and letters the same? My textbook doesn't say either way, but the definition they give could fit both. It would kind of be like saying 'cat' and 'feline' are different, and then defining both as members of the felidae family. Thanks for your help, this is bothering me!

Interesting and logical question, the answer to which is "sometimes."

You know what phonemes and morphemes are. But a letter (usually called a "character" in linguistics) is simply a symbol. Yes, some letters, especially in English and more so in Chinese, are phonemes and others are morphemes (if you'll forgive me, i  c  u  p), but that's a coincidence at least in English.

If you know what a diacritical mark is, think of a letter as being a diacritic, that is, a symbol.

Thanks for asking us Ilona, and I hope that does it for you. And you could write the textbook publisher suggesting they clarify this issue in the next edition.


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Alan Auerbach


Taught psychology for 30 years, authored four textbooks. Specialize in introductory and industrial/organizational psychology, but will tackle wider range of areas.

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