A Criticism on Roman Jakobson‟s Theory of Distinctive Features One of the most influential linguists of the twentieth century, Roman

Osipovich Jakobson is a Russian linguist well known for his work on distinctive features of language. In his book “Fundamentals of Language” (1956), which he co-authored with Morris Halle, he describes the nature of distinctive features and its role in phonology. He believes that all phonemes have a presence [+] or an absence [-] of a feature. He gains this idea of binarity from the binary oppositions of Nikolai Trubetzkoy, another influential linguist and a colleague of his at the Prague School of Linguistics (Bradford, 1994). He also makes distinction between phonetics and phonology defining the former as the ways by which sound is produced while the latter being the ways by which sound patterns itself into meaningful systems. The uniqueness of the features actually lies in its ability to differentiate each phonemes of any language. He classifies the distinctive features into two: prosodic and inherent features. Prosodic features deals with the contrastive aspect of phonemes which deals with properties of the sound produced, either it be tone feature which is the pitch, force feature which is the loudness, or the quantity feature which is the “subjunctive duration” (Jakobson and Halle, 22). Each prosodic features vary in terms of their interactions with syllable either inter- or intra-syllabic. On the other hand, inherent features deal with the patterns by which the phoneme makes itself semantically distinct. Jakobson lists 24 features: vocalic/non-vocalic, consonantal/non-consonantal, compact/defuse, tense/lax, voiced/voiceless, nasal/oral, discontinuous/continuant, strident/mellow, checked/unchecked, grave/acute, sharp/plain, and flat/plain (29-31). These features have both acoustic and articulatory (or, in his term, “genetic”) descriptions, though he focused more on the former. This is on the basis that communication involves a speaker and a listener, an encoder and a decoder of sound-meaning. The sound plays an


Diamzon, R., Garcia, K., Leaño, J., Toledo, J., Santos, K. (2010).

. Acoustic phonetics fails to provide a sole basis for the taxonomy and the systematization of the phonemic aspect of language. and Zuni. Toledo. It is even unable to identify whether it is a case of two distinct features of one sound or two different sounds. there is only an allophonic difference between semi-vowels and vowels.important role in creating meaning especially to the listener. R. although articulatory phonetics does not matter in the case of the listener. Santos. more importantly. . 2008) Jakobson. acoustic phonetics cannot distinguish the intrinsic properties and the significance of these similarities and differences. K. K. Yoruba. as long as the speaker is heard and understood. Instead of dwelling on the phonetic aspect of language. to be understood. J. In their view. J.. Garcia. Jakobson himself identifies the weakness of his theory. It is important to speak appropriately so that other people could understand what one is saying.. Furthermore. However. However. it is also significant especially for those who are learning pronunciation. graphic image of a sound but cannot interpret the said image. There are cross-language differences between the semi-vowels in these languages. Leaño. and these differences are correlated 2 Diamzon. They transcribed woo and ye as /uuu/ and /iii/ instead of the /wuw/ and /yiy/ as was the contemporary practice for American English. Although it can give both the similarities and differences of two sounds. (2010).. it is crucial to consider that the function of the sound goes beyond the level of the signifier. Humans speak not just to be heard but. how sounds are capable of conveying meaning. which is the nature of the study of phonology. which is what the acoustic phonetics is solely about. Fant and Halle (1952) suggested that a category of semivowels are not necessary. or acoustic phonetics in particular. It can give concrete. (Mindari. Jakobson should have taken into account the semantic aspect of sounds. Maddieson and Emmorey (1985) have shown that there is a clear articulatory difference between vowels and semivowels such as these in three very different languages Amharic.

. and relations between the members of an opposition. Leaño. although it is not identical with the traditional vowel-consonant distinction. A Nilo-Saharan Language. consonantals are marked by a major drop in vocal energy. Meanwhile. Take the fundamental source feature which involves vocalic vs. . several sounds did not seem to be uniquely described by the suggested set of features.with cross-language differences between the vowels. Another weakness of Jakobson's theory was that it was not certain exactly what was meant by a number of acoustic terms. By definition a vocalic is not a consonantal and vice versa hence. including Uduk. Garcia. Toledo. their differences are still apparent. nonvocalic feature helps differentiate vowels from consonants. The contribution of Trubetzkoy lies in the developing of the notion of phonological opposition.. If he defined the phoneme as the smallest distinct unit and incapable of further subdivision. Jakobson saw it as the sum of features that distinguish the phonemes from each other. K. Jakobson and his colleagues also believed that languages do not contrast implosives and stops at the same place of articulation. R. nonconsonantal for example. The vocalic vs. (2010). nonvocalic and consonantal vs. Even though Jakobson based his theories on Trubetzkoy‟s.. Vocalics are sounds which have well-defined resonance patterns. 3 Diamzon. J. Santos.. K. But within each language the semivowels differ from the corresponding vowels in that they are produced with narrower constrictions of the vocal tract. but such contrasts have been reported by Robin Thelwall in a number of languages. J. This led to the creation of a new approach to phonological description that was based on the structuralist ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure. the opposition of vocalic to nonvocalic and consonantal and non-consonantal is redundant and not a unique description.

J. Chomsky argues that their hypothesis have to be more explicit and precise for them to be tested empirically. 4 Diamzon.” Noam Chomsky agrees that sound systems of all human languages could be characterized by a limited number of universal distinctive features. .e. there are redundant features. For instance. Santos. by concentrating on the former. It is a revision in accordance to Chomsky‟s emphasis on explicitness. Garcia.In his reviews on Jakobson and Halle‟s “Fundamental of Language. However. In order to address the weak points. vocalic/nonvocalic and consonantal/nonconsonantal. This constitutes that these features are not unique descriptions... On his suggested list of features. Jakobson neglected the semantic aspect of sounds. K.. (2010).. Moreover. Jakobson and his colleagues suggest that there is only an allophonic difference between semi-vowels and vowels when there is a clear articulatory difference between them.‟ It is a synthesis of Jakobson and Halle‟s distinctive features and phonemic analysis. simplicity and autonomy of mental representations. It reveals the importance of sound in creating meaning to the listener. He suggests relating these features to the actual use of speech. R. On the one hand. It presented these features with both acoustic and articulatory. Leaño. K. J. i. He also emphasized the importance of simplicity in empirical research and phonological analyses because some of their arguments have the tendency to be redundant— overstatement of facts and exaggeration of the pure and simple concepts. Chomsky collaborated with Halle and formulated a theory which they called „theory of generative phonology. acoustic phonetics fails to identify whether it is a case of two distinct features or one sound or two different sounds. Jakobson‟s theory of distinctive features has its contributions as well as drawbacks. Toledo.

. pag. art. “Some controversial questions in phonological theory.K. Elan. Leaño. The Sounds of the World's Languages. C... Tiffany. William R. 1996. Jakobson‟s Linguistic Inspiration. J.2 (1965): 97-138. 5 Diamzon.” Journal of Linguistics 1. B. University of Toronto: 2004. Dresher. Chomsky. 1994. 1987. Richard. “A Brief Look at Roman Jakobson‟s “Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. “Remarks on the Sources of R. Muton & Co: 1956. Peter and Ian Maddieson. K.2 (2008): n. Ladefoged. London: Routledge. Roman and Morris Halle. R. Jakobson. Koerner. Chomsky and Halle's Revolution in Phonology. language.” Annual Review of Anthropology 16 (1987): 223-260.References: Bradford. E. Caton. New York: McGraw-Hill. . Toledo. S. Santos.” Cahiers de l’ILSL 9 (1997): 151-168. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Roman Jakobson: Life. (2010). Phonetics : Theory and Application 2nd ed. Mindari.. K. “Contributions of Roman Jakobson. Ruruh.F. Noam and Morris Halle.” Bahasa dan Seni 36. J. Fundamentals of Language. Garcia.

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