Saturday, May 18, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Distinctive Features

A few weeks ago in our Intro to Linguistics series we introduced you to phonology. Today we're going to look at distinctive features, the most basic parts of phonological structure that can be analyzed.

There are four main categories of distinctive features which are each broken down to specify certain phonetic properties, usually noted with a + for their presence or a - for their absence. Basically, it's a way to describe individual phonemes based on how our bodies create the sounds. This is not a comprehensive list of all distinctive features since that would take ages and possibly bore you to tears, but these are some of the main features that are often focused on by phonologists.

Flamingos have distinctive features
too, namely their long legs and necks
and bright pink feathers!
Major Class Features

You'll be shocked to learn that major class features tell us the most important, or major, classes of sounds. The consonantal group of sounds are produced with constriction of your vocal tract. Sounds that are [+consonantal] as linguists would denote, shockingly include most consonants.

Sonorant sounds, on the other hand, are produced with vocal cord vibration. The sounds marked as [+sonorant] include all vowels, as well as glides like [w], liquids like [l], and nasals like [m] or [n].

There's another major class known as syllabic sounds. These function as the nucleus, or peak, of a syllable. All vowels are [+syllabic], while most consonants are [-syllabic], the exception being syllabic consonants, which likely exist just to make this just a bit more complicated!

Place Features

Our second group of features is a bit more straightforward. These aptly named features tell us the place of the sound's articulation. Sounds articulated with the lips like [b] and [m] are labial.

The coronal sounds are a much larger group produced by the tip of the tongue making contact with the teeth, the hard palate (that bony part on the roof of your mouth), or the alveolar ridge (those funny-feeling ridges in the front of the roof of your mouth).

Sounds articulated using the back of the tongue, known as the dorsum, are dorsal. They can then be further divided into high sounds which raise the dorsum, low sounds that move it to a low position in the mouth, back sounds that involve bunching your tongue up and pulling it back in your mouth, and tensesounds that are vowels involving a more "extreme" articulation. Common [+tense] sounds in English include [i] as in "feet" and [u] as in "boot".

Manner of Articulation Features

Here's a cute hedgehog to aid your learning process.
This group obviously tells us how sounds are articulated. Continuants use a continuous stream of air passing through your vocal tract, like [f]. Nasals like [m] or [n], however, are produced by air passing through your nasal tract. There are also lateral sounds like [l] in which the tongue rises to touch the top of your mouth, which then forces the air to move laterally around the sides of the tongue.

Laryngeal Features

Finally, we have laryngeal features which describe how the glottis is used in each sound. The glottis sounds scary, but really is just your vocal cords and the space between them. A voiced sound uses vocal cord vibration. There are also spread glottis sounds that involve the vocal folds being spread apart, while constricted glottis sounds involve them being held close together.

That's probably enough linguistics for today, don't you think?