Summary and Keywords
The fundamental idea underlying the use of distinctive features in phonology is the proposition that the same phonetic properties that distinguish one phoneme from another also play a crucial role in accounting for phonological patterns. Phonological rules and constraints apply to natural classes of segments, expressed in terms of features, and involve mechanisms, such as spreading or agreement, that copy distinctive features from one segment to another.
Contrastive specification builds on this by taking seriously the idea that phonological features are distinctive features. Many phonological patterns appear to be sensitive only to properties that crucially distinguish one phoneme from another, ignoring the same properties when they are redundant or predictable. For example, processes of voicing assimilation in many languages apply only to the class of obstruents, where voicing distinguishes phonemic pairs such as /t/ and /d/, and ignore sonorant consonants and vowels, which are predictably voiced. In theories of contrastive specification, features that do not serve to mark phonemic contrasts (such as [+voice] on sonorants) are omitted from underlying representations. Their phonological inertness thus follows straightforwardly from the fact that they are not present in the phonological system at the point at which the pattern applies, though the redundant features may subsequently be filled in either before or during phonetic implementation.
In order to implement a theory of contrastive specification, it is necessary to have a means of determining which features are contrastive (and should thus be specified) and which ones are redundant (and should thus be omitted). A traditional and intuitive method involves looking for minimal pairs of phonemes: if [±voice] is the only property that can distinguish /t/ from /d/, then it must be specified on them. This approach, however, often identifies too few contrastive features to distinguish the phonemes of an inventory, particularly when the phonetic space is sparsely populated. For example, in the common three-vowel inventory /i a u/, there is more than one property that could distinguish any two vowels: /i/ differs from /a/ in both place (front versus back or central) and height (high versus low), /a/ from /u/ in both height and rounding, and /u/ from /i/ in both rounding and place.
Because pairwise comparison cannot identify any features as contrastive in such cases, much recent work in contrastive specification is instead based on a hierarchical sequencing of features, with specifications assigned by dividing the full inventory into successively smaller subsets. For example, if the inventory /i a u/ is first divided according to height, then /a/ is fully distinguished from the other two vowels by virtue of being low, and the second feature, either place or rounding, is contrastive only on the high vowels. Unlike pairwise comparison, this approach produces specifications that fully distinguish the members of the underlying inventory, while at the same time allowing for the possibility of cross-linguistic variation in the specifications assigned to similar inventories.
Keywords: contrast, redundancy, underspecification, contrastive specification, distinctive features, contrastive hierarchy, Successive Division Algorithm, vowel harmony, voicing assimilation, consonant harmony
Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial.
If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.