phoneme

A phoneme is the smallest contrastive sound unit in a language.

A phoneme is usually represented by a single letter or symbol in a language, however it can be pronounced in a number of ways without changing the meaning.

For example the phoneme /s/ in English can be used to form plurals.

While it always spelt with an /s/ it is not always pronounced the same way, eg, compare the final sound in dogs and cats.

The /s/ after the word dog is actually pronounced like a [z] sound while after cat it has the more typical [s].