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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: November 2012

7 - On the form and contents of contrastive features


[W]e have no right to attribute to the sound some value which would disagree with its nature.

(Grammont 1901: 321)


In the previous chapters it has been established that underlying representations can be fairly abstract. First, it was shown that language users make use of discrete contrastive features rather than the whole phonetic signal. Second, psycho- and neurolinguistic experiments have shown that features are underspecified in underlying representations if they are the unmarked value of a contrast or if they are redundant. In this chapter we will have a look at what is inside contrastive features. The question is whether they contain information on or instructions for their articulation or information on the acoustic/perceptual properties of segments. Alternatively, features could be abstract labels that mark segments as different from others and group them into classes.

In most contemporary feature theories the features are defined by acoustic properties of the targeted sound or by the involved articulators or articulation. Halle (1995) distinguishes articulator-bound features and articulator-free features. Among the former we find features such as [round] (lip rounding) or [labial] (involvement of/constriction of the air stream channel with the lips), the additional place features [coronal] (constriction via the corona or front part of the tongue) and [dorsal] (constriction by the back of the tongue), [ATR]/[tense] (raising or lowering of the tongue root and consequential tenseness or laxness of the tongue body) and [nasal] (air flow through the nasal cavity). Examples of the latter are [±continuant], referring to continuant or interrupted air stream, which can be interrupted at (almost) any point in the vocal tract, [±sonorant], which refers more or less to intensity and [±strident], which is defined by turbulence in the air stream, high energy at high frequencies.

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Suggestions for further reading
Fudge, Eric C. 1967 The nature of phonological primesJournal of Linguistics 3 1
Hall, T. A. 2007 Segmental featuresde Lacy, PaulThe Cambridge Handbook of PhonologyCambridge University Press311
Harris, John 2007 Representationde Lacy, PaulThe Cambridge Handbook of PhonologyCambridge University Press119
Mielke, Jeff 2008 The Emergence of Distinctive FeaturesOxford University Press
Schane, Sandford 1985 The fundamentals of Particle PhonologyPhonology Yearbook 1 129
Uffmann, ChristianDistinctive FeaturesCambridge University Press
Cuypere, Ludovic 2008 Limiting the IconicAmsterdamJohn Benjamins
Hinton, LeanneNichols, JohannaOhala, John J. 1994 Sound SymbolismCambridge University Press