LINGUIST List 15.2551

Tue Sep 14 2004

Diss: Phonetics/Phonology: Mielke: 'The Emergence...'

Editor for this issue: Takako Matsui <>


  1. mielke, The Emergence of Distinctive Features

Message 1: The Emergence of Distinctive Features

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 2004 14:11:48 -0400 (EDT)
From: mielke <>
Subject: The Emergence of Distinctive Features

Institution: Ohio State University
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2004

Author: Jeff Mielke

Dissertation Title: The Emergence of Distinctive Features

Linguistic Field: Phonetics, Phonology 

Dissertation Director 1: Elizabeth Hume

Dissertation Abstract:

Since the mid 20th century, distinctive features have been widely
assumed to be part of Universal Grammar. While the theory of innate
features predicts that a small set of distinctive features can
describe most if not all natural classes, this prediction has never
been explicitly tested. The usefulness of distinctive features in
phonological analysis is clear from decades of research, but
demonstrating that features are innate rather than learned requires a
different kind of evidence. This paper presents the results of the
first large-scale crosslinguistic survey of natural classes. Based on
data from 561 languages, the survey reveals that unnatural classes are
widespread: among 6077 unique classes of sounds which are targets or
triggers of phonological processes, analyzed in three popular feature
theories (Preliminaries, SPE, and Unified Feature Theory), no single
theory is able to characterize more than 71% of the classes, and over
24% are not characterizable in any of the theories.

Many approaches to innate features allow for the existence of
unnatural classes as idiosyncrasies. However, it is shown that there
is no objective way to partition classes into natural and
idiosyncratic categories. Many apparently unnatural classes are
recurrent, and ranking classes by frequency results in a bell-like
distribution sloping gently from common, easily-characterizable
classes, down to rare classes which occur only once. Not only is there
no visible boundary between natural and unnatural, the two are
interleaved, with some of the most common unnatural classes being more
frequent than most natural classes.

There are many reasons to be suspicious of the idea that distinctive
features are innate. Humans have been evolving (separate from other
primates) for a relatively short time. For all distinctive features to
have emerged in the human genome, humans must have been exposed to
phonological patterns motivating all of them at some time before the
life of a common ancestor of all modern humans. This evidence, along
with the survey results, indicates that the distinctive features used
in language are learned rather than innate.

Accounting for how features emerge in language and how they are
learned by language users involves an appeal to the role of phonetics
in language change and the cognitive process of generalization. Sounds
may be grouped together as a result of their participation in sound
change, or as a result of phonetically-based generalizations, and
distinctive features emerge as generalizations based on the
phonological patterning and phonetic properties of sounds. It is
argued that these factors are better than innate features at
accounting for observed natural classes. The account does predict that
many classes of sounds which pattern together will involve
phonetically similar segments, and so it is not surprising that
phonetically-defined distinctive features have been able to describe
many of these classes. While "external" historical and phonetic
explanations have sometimes been invoked to account for
"idiosyncratic" unnatural classes, it is shown that they are even
better at accounting for "natural" classes. The result is a unified
account of what have traditionally been considered to be natural and
unnatural classes.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue