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Feature theory


Phonology can be viewed as a product of the grammaticalization of real-world observations as filtered through the cognitive-perceptual system, thus as a "grammar of speech sounds".  From this point of view its organization mirrors that of grammar as a whole:


Grammar as a whole:









Phonetic interpretation


Phonology thus contains a lexicon of elementary terms (features), a morphology stating how features are combined into segments (geometry), a syntax specifying how segments align with each other (phonotactic principles, notably sonority), and a semantics indicating how these formal constructions are interpreted in speech output (phonetic interpretation).  

Within this overall organization, features play a central role as the ultimate constitutive elements of phonological representation:

·        Features are universal in the sense that all languages define their speech sounds in terms of a small feature set

·        Features are distinctive in that they commonly distinguish one phoneme from another

·        Features delimit the number of theoretically possible speech sound contrasts within and across languages

·        Features are economical in allowing relatively large phoneme systems to be defined in terms of a much smaller feature set

·        Features define natural classes of sounds observed in recurrent phonological patterns.   

·        Patterns of markedness, underlying crosslinguistic universals, involve the distinction between marked and unmarked features

Although features must be defined in terms abstract enough to account for these various roles, they are ultimately grounded in cognitive and peripheral properties of the human organism.  We are currently exploring a model which views all features as grounded in quantal relations between articulatory movements and their acoustic effects. (For more on features, see Inventory Structure, Phonetic Bases of Distinctive Features).


Selected readings

2006      G. N. Clements, "Feature organization." In The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd édition, vol. 4, 433-441. Oxford: Elsevier Limited.

2005      G. N. Clements, "Does sonority have a phonetic basis?"  In Eric Raimy & Charles Cairns, eds., Contemporary Views on Architecture and Representations in Phonological Theory.  MIT Press, in press

2003      G. N. Clements, "Les diphtongues brèves en anglais : fonction phonétique du trait tendu/relâché." In Jean-Pierre Angoujard & Sophie Wauquier-Gravelines, eds., Phonologie : Champs et Perspectives. Lyon: ENS Editions, pp. 35-55.