|Title:||The Emergence of Distinctive Features||Add Dissertation|
|Author:||Jeff Mielke||Update Dissertation|
|Email:||click here to access email|
|Institution:||Ohio State University, Department of Linguistics|
|Linguistic Subfield(s):||Phonetics; Phonology;|
|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.