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Week 2 – Phonological Features

September 13, 2011


⋆ Consider the sounds [p, ph , b, bh , t, th , d, dh , k, kh , g, gh ] in Nepali. Below are some
minimal pairs. Assume there are minimal or near-minimal pairs for all combinations.
Explain why the pair illustrating the [p/ph ] distinction is more informative in a way
than the pair illustrating the [p/bh ] distinction. What phonetic dimensions must be
associated with the contrast? What about the English and Spanish sounds discussed

[ph ir]
[th al]
[kh al]


‘anxiety, pain’
‘Turn on!’
‘time, death ’
‘kind, skin’

[bh ar]
[dh ar]
[gh ol]

‘a kind of tree’
‘circle, ch arcoal’
‘Mix! Stir!’

Distinctive Feature Theory



Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetzkoy (1890–1938), Russian linguist, used the term opposition to
refer to a pair of speech sounds that are distinctive, or contrastive. In other words, for those
pairs of sounds for which we can find a minimal or near-minimal pair. He classified these
oppositions in the following ways:
• Bilateral oppositions are those where two members of an opposition have sufficiently
many phonetic properties in common which distinguish them from every other member
of an opposition.
⋆ Explain why /k,g/ are in a bilateral opposition in Nepali.

• An opposition is proportional if and only if the relation between its members is identical with the relation between the members of another opposition or several other oppositions of the same system. ⋆ Give an example of a multilateral opposition from Nepali. ⋆ Provide some examples of proportional oppositions in Nepali. • An opposition is neutralizable iff it occurs in certain contexts. • When members of an opposition differ in a way that is neither privative nor gradual. This is the origin of the term markedness in phonology. • Oppositions wherein one member carries some phonetic property that the other lacks are said to be privative. Heinz Week 2: Phonological Features ⋆ Does this mean members of a bilateral opposition differ only in a single phonetic dimension? • Multilateral oppositions are those which are not bilateral.J. “dispreferred”. it is said to be equipollent. Otherwise it is constant. or “ill-formed. which today means either “less-common”. • An opposition which is not proportional is isolated. [rat] [rat] advice wheel 2 [rE:t@] [rE:d@r] advices wheels . The member carrying the phonetic property is said to be marked.” • Gradual oppositions are those where members of an opposition differ in some degree of some phonetic property. ⋆ Explain why this paradigm from German establishes that the /t.d/ opposition is neutralizable.

They hypothesized that there are a limited number of such features. the concerns of Jakobson. or /Cw / and /CQ /. for the first time. Trubetzkoy was able to reveal how the same phonetic contrast may structure differently in different languages. 3 . 1975. and pharyngealized consonants. /CG /. another founding member of the Prague School. This mutual exclusiveness of these three kinds of consonants led Jakobson. /C/ and /CG /. Fant and Halle to propose that they are merely surface phonetic realizations of the same underlying feature of flatness (see below). respectively. Since many more than 12 to 15 phonetic features are necessary to differentiate the various sounds occurring in languages. Thus. say 12 to 15. and /CQ /. that is. In the work of other phoneticians and phonologists. Jakobson wanted to develop a theory of phonology which would predict only those oppositions which could be found in languages. one cannot find an opposition between /Cw / and /CG /. in works such as Jakobson. then. and pharyngealization.J. which together account for all of the oppositions found in the world’s languages. In particular. JH] “While Trubetzkoy’s concern was to capture the phonological properties of such frequent phonetic contrasts as voicing in consonants and height in vowels. 29): “With these notions.” ⋆ What does this mean? Can we apply this to the English and Spanish example we discussed last week? 2.2 Jakobson Jakobson introduced the notion of distinctive feature into phonological theory. [NB: The phonetic symbols have been standardized to the IPA. Heinz Week 2: Phonological Features (Hyman. a major departure from earlier phonetic studies of speech sounds. For example. which are not available per se as phonological features but rather are representative of the more basic phonological feature of flatness. were somewhat different. it becomes apparent that some of these phonetic features will be “conflated” into the more limited set of phonological or distinctive features. Thus. there is an assumption that the same features are to be used to characterize phonological contrasts in a language and to describe the phonetic content of various speech sounds. /CG / and /CQ /. and /C/ and /CQ /. he hypothesized that the presence of certain phonetic oppositions precludes the presence of other oppositions. /Cw /. This represents. such as labialization. Jakobsen’s position is that there are certain phonetic distinctions. velarized. Jakobson claimed that a given language will contrast only one of these three consonant types with a plain /C/. velarization. Fant and Halle (1952) and Jakobson and Halle (1956) it is maintained that languages do not have contrasts between labialized. while there can be an opposition between /C/ and /Cw /. p.

3 Determining which features are distinctive It is not obvious how to determine which features are distinctive in any given language. delete all unmarked feature specifications on each segment. it is logically possible that sounds could be voiceless. The Successive Division Algorithm (Dresher. How can binary features describe gradual or equipollent oppositions? ⋆ If the phonemes are only identified by distinctive features then what determines the phonetic realization of the phoneme? How could these language-specific instructions be formalized? 2. 1988) (a) Fully specify all segments. With respect to acoustic features. (d) Designate such feature specifications as ‘contrastive’ on the members of that pair. and fully voiced. There are at least two possibilities. somewhat voiced.J. he was (at least implicitly) making a similar claim. 1. somewhat fully voiced. 2. Pairwise Algorithm (Archangeli. 2009) 4 . But in fact languages only seem to make a 2-way distinction. barely voiced. The set of sounds sharing a feature form a natural class. Since Trubetzkoy considered voicing a privative opposition. Heinz Week 2: Phonological Features the possibility is entertained that the set of phonological features may not be the same as the set of phonetic features. 1975. 30) Two other innovations of Jakobson: the use of acoustic features and the requirement that all features are binary. With respect to binary features.” (Hyman. (c) Determine which segment pairs differ by a single feature specification. p. (e) Once all pairs have been examined and appropriate feature specifications have been marked ‘contrastive’. These classes ought to be reflected in the phonological patterning of sounds across languages. The motivations again come from typological considerations. ⋆ Binary features most naturally describe privative oppositions. Jakobson was interested in determining which features define natural classes of sounds. (b) Isolate all pairs of segments.

select a feature and divide the set into as many subsets as the feature allows for. [voiced] [nasal] p b m − + + − − + ⋆ Now what happens when both are applied to a common inventory of vowels? [high] [low] [back] [round] i + − − − e − − − − a − + + − o − − + + u + − + + Dresher calls this the “too many features” problem. ⋆ Let’s apply both methods to the following mini-inventory. applying successive features in turn. (c) Repeat step (b) in each subset: keep dividing up the inventory into sets. ⋆ Are there any weaknesses to the SDA? ⋆ Can you think of a third alternative to identifying distinctive features? 5 . (b) If the set is found to consist of more than one contrasting member. On these grounds. until every set has only one member. further research into distinctive features ought to proceed along the lines as outlined by the SDA. It is not always the case that contrastive speech sounds differ along a single phonetic dimension.J. Dresher concludes that the Pairwise Algorithm suffers from a “logical problem. Heinz Week 2: Phonological Features (a) Begin with no feature specifications: assume all sounds are allophones of a single undifferentiated phoneme.” but the Successive Division Algorithm (SDA) does not.

Rinehart and Winston. M. C. On this basis. 1975. Roman. Cambridge University Press. 6 . The Hague: Mouton. The Emergence of Distinctive Features. and Morris Halle. Larry. 2008. Please read at your leisure. Phonology 5:183–208. Heinz Week 2: Phonological Features 3 The Emergence of Distinctive Features Mielke (2008) conducts a cross-linguistic study of ∼500 languages to see to what extent the phonological rules in grammars reflect natural classes.J. Fundamentals of Language. Preliminaries to Speech Analysis. 2009. Dresher. Fant. Jakobson. Jeff. defined according to various feature proposals. 1952. Jakobson. MIT Press. Diana.” or be learned in some manner. Mielke. The Contrastive Hierarchy in Phonology. It is provided on the handout. Phonology: Theory and Analysis. Gunnar. he claims that distinctive features may not be innate but instead “emerge. He finds that about 75% of rules target natural classes as defined by any of the proposals he considers. Oxford: Oxford University Press. and the other 25% do not. Hyman. 1988. References Archangeli. Elan. Roman. 1956. we will rely on Hayes (2009) for the feature system used in this course. Holt. His follow-up studies show that the unnatural classes are of varying sizes and types and do not neatly fall into any simple description. 4 Hayes 2009 and Features In this course. and Morris Halle. Aspects of underspecification theory.