In This Article Distinctive Features

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Surveys and Histories
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources
  • Feature Systems for Signed Languages
  • Feature Organization
  • Feature Valency
  • Origins of Features
  • Contrast, Redundancy, and Underspecification
  • Economy and Related Principles

Linguistics Distinctive Features
Daniel Currie Hall, Jeff Mielke
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0012


In phonological theory the building blocks of speech sounds are often argued to be what are called “distinctive features.” They typically have phonetic definitions and phonetically inspired names (e.g., [voice], [nasal], [labial]). While various algorithms for feature specification exist, segments and natural classes of segments are typically interpreted as bundles of the phonetically defined feature values that match their phonetic descriptions. Throughout the history of distinctive feature theory, a major goal has been to identify a set of features that is adequate for describing the segmental contrasts and phonologically important segment groups observed in the world’s languages.

Foundational Works

The central idea behind distinctive feature theory is the notion that contrasts between phonemes can be most elegantly and insightfully described in terms of properties of segments rather than by treating segments as alphabetic atoms. For example, if one identifies voicing as a distinctive feature, then it is possible to say not only that a language contrasts the phonemes /p/, /b/, /t/, and /d/ but also that the contrast between /p/ and /b/ is in some sense the same as, or at least parallel to, the contrast between /t/ and /d/. The early history of distinctive feature theory is thus bound up with related issues, such as the definition of the phoneme, and, because many features are defined in articulatory or auditory terms, the relation between phonology and phonetics. Although many of the properties encoded by features had already been discussed in earlier work in phonetics, it was Ferdinand de Saussure (Saussure 1959) who crucially saw them as the basic elements of systems of phonological oppositions. Saussure’s insights were elaborated on by the Prague Circle during the 1930s. Many of the basic ideas of modern distinctive feature theory were laid out in Trubetzkoy 1969, originally published in 1939, a year after his death. This includes motivating the distinction between phonetics and phonology and identifying the different types of oppositions involved in segment inventories and some of the phonetic dimensions that are used by these oppositions. Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetzkoy emphasized that phonological oppositions can be studied only as part of a system of oppositions. Jakobson 1942 continued this work. The Prague school system of oppositions was given explicit phonetic underpinnings in Jakobson, et al. 1952, which exploited the invention of the spectrograph to give precise acoustic definitions of oppositions observed in segment inventories. The developing concept was also influenced by information theory, for instance, in the effort to reduce contrasts to a set of binary oppositions. Jakobson and Halle 1956 developed some of the theoretical points suggested in the earlier work, and Halle 1959 used this feature system in an analysis of the phonological alternations of Russian. The preliminaries feature system was very similar to the later sound pattern of the English (SPE, Chomsky and Halle 1968) system but did not claim that the features were innate and did not use them to formulate phonological rules. In SPE the number of distinctive features was doubled, and the acoustically defined features found in earlier work were recast as articulatorily defined features. Changing the names to articulatory names gave the impression that this was a more radical departure, but [grave] survived as [−coronal] and so on. Changes to some parts of the SPE system were proposed almost immediately (including the authors’ replacement of [vocalic] with [syllabic] before the book was finished), so what is often thought of as “the SPE system” is actually a modification of the original proposal (see Proposals for Specific Features).

  • Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle. 1968. The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.

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    This book, conventionally abbreviated SPE, is probably the most influential work in phonological theory. It is written much like Halle 1959 but for English and with more effort to integrate the Jakobsonian feature system into generative grammar. Claims about innateness are more prominent here. Prepublication manuscripts used acoustically defined features like those of Jakobson, et al. 1952, but most of these were replaced by articulatory features in the published version.

  • Halle, Morris. 1959. The sound pattern of Russian. The Hague: Mouton.

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    Uses the preliminaries system of features to work out the phonological patterns of Russian. Much of the modern use of features in phonological rules can be traced to this work, though it is not as widely read as Chomsky and Halle 1968.

  • Jakobson, Roman. 1942. The concept of phoneme. In On language. Edited by Linda R. Waugh and Monique Moville-Burston, 218–241. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Develops the concepts of phoneme and opposition, emphasizing the importance of discriminative function, and argues for minimizing the number of independent phonological oppositions (and thus the number of features), which Jakobson considers to strain perception and memory.

  • Jakobson, Roman, C. Gunnar M. Fant, and Morris Halle. 1952. Preliminaries to speech analysis: The distinctive features and their correlates. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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    Proposes a set of twelve acoustically defined features, most of which survive in some form in more recent feature theories.

  • Jakobson, Roman, and Morris Halle. 1956. Fundamentals of language. The Hague: Mouton.

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    Some overlap with Jakobson, et al. 1952. More emphasis on the universality of the set of twelve oppositions and how the dichotomous scale is an inherent property of language.

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1959. Course in general linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library.

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    The foundational text of structuralist linguistics. Introduced features (or éléments) as a basic mechanism for classifying phonemes. A source of inspiration for the Prague school in general and, in particular, for Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetzkoy’s investigations into the typology and representation of oppositions in phonology. French original published in 1916 as Cours de linguistique générale.

  • Trubetzkoy, Nikolai Sergeevich. 1969. Principles of phonology. Translated by Christiane A. M. Baltaxe. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Established the idea of features as basic oppositions between (sets of) phonemes and categorized oppositions as privative, equipollent, or gradual. This typology of oppositions forms the basis for subsequent theories of privative, binary, and multivalent features. Originally published in German as Grundzüge der phonologie in 1939.

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