English Consonants and Vowels
An alternate way to analyze sounds makes use of the concept of binary or paired features (a concept that we will encounter again in semantics in Chapter 6) where there is an opposition between the presence or absence of a feature in a particular sound. A notation is used for features in which the name of the feature is capitalized and enclosed in square brackets, the presence of the feature is indicated by a plus sign and its absence by a minus sign. For example, if we consider the features of voicing and nasality:
/t/ is [–VOICE] [–NASAL]
/d/ is [+VOICE] [–NASAL]
/n/ is [+VOICE] [+NASAL]
Sometimes, a sound may or may not have a particular feature and is hence ±, e.g.:
/d/ is [–SYLLABIC]
/æ/ is [+SYLLABIC]
/n/ is [±SYLLABIC]
Sounds are analyzed in terms of a unique set, or bundle, of features. Each sound is distinguished from every other sound by a least one feature, e.g.:
The sounds of a language can be arranged in a grid or matrix, in which the features are listed along one axis and the sounds along the other, as we shall see below. Phonological features are assumed to be universal; that is, there exists only a limited number of features, and languages select among the possible features and combine them in language-specific ways. The distinctiveness of the features lies in the fact that they combine both articulatory and acoustic information. In the speech situation, there is a balance between the needs of the hearer, who perceives only those features necessary for deciphering the sounds (overlooking many other features), and the needs of the speaker, who for ease of articulation often omits features of sounds. Distinctive features are, thus, those features required by both speaker and hearer.
While the inventory of features is continually undergoing revision, we may identify the following features of consonants, many of which we have encountered before:
|[CONSONANTAL]||made with closure in the vocal tract greater than that necessary for glides, resulting in an impediment in the flow of air|
|[SONORANT]||involving a regular pattern of vibration and lack of "noise", musical sounds that can be sung or held on pitch|
|[SYLLABIC]||functioning as the nucleus of a syllable and potentially carrying stress|
|[CONTINUANT]||made with incomplete closure in the oral cavity|
|[NASAL]||made with the velum lowered|
|[LATERAL]||made with the lateral flow of air|
|[VOICE]||made with vibration of the vocal cords|
|[SIBILANT]||made with a groove or trough along the center line of the tongue, resulting in a strong hissing sound|
|[DELAYED RELEASE]||made with the slow release of a stop|
For place of articulation, in order to establish a binary opposition, we must introduce some distinctions that differ from the traditional places such as alveolar or velar:
made on or in front of the alveolar ridge
made with the tip or blade of the tongue raised
made with the tongue raised in the palatal or velar regions
articulated behind the palatal region
See the feature grid for English consonants below.
Note that all consonants except the glides and /h/ are [+CONSONANTAL]. Nasals, liquids, and approximants are [+SONORANT], while fricatives, liquids, and approximants are [+CONTINUANT]. The four major classes of consonants can be differentiated as follows:
In respect to place of articulation, labials, labiodentals, dentals, and alveolars are [+ANTERIOR]; and dentals, alveolars, alveolopalatals are [+CORONAL]. A way of grouping consonants according to features is as follows:
For vowels, the following features may be identified, which are used along with the place features [HIGH] and [BACK]:
[LOW] – made with the tongue lowered from the neutral, central position
[ROUND] – produced with lip rounding
[TENSE] – articulated with increased tension in the tongue
[REDUCED] – /ə/
See the feature grid for the basic English vowels below:
Note that vowels are all [+VOCALIC] (an open oral cavity with voicing) as well as [–CONSONANTAL, +SONORANT, +VOICE, +CONTINUANT]. The diphthongs /eɪ, ɪu, aɪ, aʊ, oʊ, ɔɪ/ cannot be distinguished by these features but must be treated as a combination of vowel + glide. A way of grouping vowels according to features is as follows:
Now try to do the following exercises:
What distinctive feature(s) do the sounds in each set have in common?
/k/, /u/, /ɑ/, /ŋ/
/b/, /ŋ/, /ɛ/, /ʊ/
/f/, /ʃ/, /ə/, /j/
/l/, /ʒ/, /t/, /n/
/j/, /k/, /i/, /w/
/r/, /ŋ/, /ɔ/, /æ/
What feature or features distinguish each of the following sets of sounds?
Give a list of distinctive features for each of the following sounds. Which are necessary to distinguish the sound from all other sounds?
What sound or sounds have the following sets of distinctive features?
[+CONSONANTAL, +HIGH, +SONORANT, +BACK]
[–CONSONANTAL, +HIGH, –BACK, –VOCALIC]
[–ROUND, +LOW, –BACK]
[+ANTERIOR, –SIBILANT, +CORONAL, –VOICE]
It could be argued that [±NASAL] is a redundant feature since it is not required to distinguish /m, n, ŋ/ from other sounds. Explain.
[–SYLLABIC, –CONSONANTAL, +SONORANT, –NASAL, –ANTERIOR, –CORONAL, +HIGH, +BACK, +CONTINUANT, –DELAYED RELEASE, –SIBILANT, +VOICE, –LATERAL]
[–SYLLABIC, +CONSONANTAL, –SONORANT, –NASAL, –ANTERIOR, +CORONAL, –BACK, –HIGH, –CONTINUANT, +DELAYED RELEASE, +SIBILANT, +VOICE, –LATERAL]
[±SYLLABIC, +CONSONANTAL, +SONORANT, –NASAL, +ANTERIOR, +CORONAL, –BACK, –HIGH, +CONINUANT, –DELAYED RELEASE, –SIBILANT, +VOICE, +LATERAL]
[–CONSONANTAL, +SONORANT, +CONINUANT, +VOCALIC, +VOICE, –HIGH, +LOW, –ROUNDED, +BACK, –REDUCED]
Nasals are characterized by the combination of features [–CONTINUANT] and [+SONORANT/. While stops are [–CONTINUANT], they are [–SONORANT] and while approximants are [+SONORANT], they are [+CONTINUANT].