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Critique on Distinctive Features

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Andrew Ike B. Waga ENG 106 Dec. 14, 2011 2010-53632 Trubetzkoy, Jakobson or Chomsky, Whose Distinctive Features are truly “Distinct”? “Teacher, teacher, Help me, I have just been side swiped by a car! ” These were the exact words that came out from the mouth of the school’s resident hooligan, Kevin, one afternoon after class.

During those times, our school has been intensively campaigning for every student to speak English at least while on campus, in preparation for the coming PAASCU (Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges) visit, we were so prepped up that we were even speaking in English outside school “just in case the Assessors are just loitering around, observing” our teachers would say.

So one afternoon, after finding not much to do, Kevin, decided he wanted to show his antics to us, saying that he is planning to pull off a prank on our school’s English Coordinator, and our class adviser as well, we had a carefully laid out plan, he would be rushing from the street towards our school gate while we convince our teacher to approach the gate as well, and then he shouted, the exact words on quotation, except that he pronounced swiped as /s? ?pd/. Our teacher, knowing Kevin’s reputation, was already sensing that she was a bait to a good laugh, calmly yet in an authoritarian manner said, “side swipe! s? aIp/ Next time, Kevin, try pronouncing the words well, so as not to lose your momentum, there’s always a next time! ” with her signature smirk. I remembered this incident while reading about Natural classes, I am very sure that my teacher knew what Kevin meant, since all of us thought that Kevin’s pronunciation of that word was correct as far as we were concerned, until the jokes went back to Kevin. Growing up in a city that speaks Cebuano, it is inevitable for some English words to get that “bisaya” flavour, like the occasional /p/ becomes an /f/ or the letter h is pronounced as /? ? / and many more, but nevertheless, besides deviating from what we know as a “standard” for American English, we pretty much understood each other despite the glitches. And so I thought, why was it necessary to dwell on the distinctive features of sounds when the main importance has been served, comprehension. But then, I had to understand that it is necessary so that I would know just how these sounds are related to be viewed as almost interchangeable, just how “similar” was similar? Hence, we go to the distinctive features of sounds.

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In dealing with Distinctive features, I focused first on the work of Trubetzkoy, most people would start with Jakobson before Trubetzkoy but I saw that it was Trubetzkoy who first saw Phonetics and Phonology as separate disciplines. He mentioned that form (contrast, system patterning) must be studied separately from substance (acoustics, articulation). Hence, there was a greater concentration on sounds first before they are seen as words. It was Trubetzkoy who introduced the idea of “oppositions” in Phonology which he mentioned in his primary work, GrundzUge der phonologie (1939).

Oppositions would refer to a pair or set of sounds sharing the same feature that is not shared with any other sounds. Here are some of Trubetzkoy’s Oppositions: a) Bilateral oppositions A bilateral opposition refers to a pair sounds that share a set of features which no other sound shares fully. For example, voiceless labial obstruents = /p,f/. Note that obstruents are defined as having a degree of stricture greater than that of approximants (that is, stops and fricatives). b) Multilateral oppositions A group of more than 2 sounds which share common features.

For example, labial obstruents,/p,b,f,v/, are both labial and obstruents, so they share two features. c) Privative (Binary) Oppositions One member of a pair of sounds possesses a mark, or feature, which the other lacks. Such features are also known as binary features which a sound either possesses or lacks. Voicing is such a feature. A sound is voiced or NOT voiced. The sound which possesses that feature is said to be marked (eg [+voice]) whilst the sound lacking the feature is unmarked (eg. [-voice]). d) Gradual Oppositions The members of a class of sounds possess different degrees or gradations of a feature or property.

For example, the three short front unrounded vowels in English /? , e, ? / which are distinguished only by their height. In this system height would be a single feature with two or more degrees of height. As of present times, when Chomsky and Halle’s set of Distinctive features are accessible to us, this would seem very broad and general, hence, not really dwelling into more specific details. But this jumpstarted the notion that sounds share similar qualities and it is crucial for the development of his friend, Jakobson’s own Distinctive Feature Theory.

Jakobson is known as the first one to formalize the Distinctive Feature Theory. He followed the findings of Trubetzkoy as one of his basis for building up his set of distinctive features. Jakobson’s original formulation of the Distinctive Feature Theory aside from Trubetzkoy was based on the ff. Ideas: (1) All features are BINARY. Sounds are either [+voice] or [-voice] (2) A small set of features is able to differentiate between the phonemes of any single language. (3) Distinctive features may be defined in terms of articulatory or acoustic features.

Here is a table showing Jakobson’s Distinctive Features: Though, the advantage of Jakobson’s set is that it also has an acoustic description, I do think that the articulatory description is sufficient enough, since after articulating the sound we hear the sound we produced ourselves and yet not at all times would people share the same acoustic descriptions to their produced sound, because we all have our own ways of pronouncing sounds, hence, I think that the acoustic description should be left for the speaker to describe and not defined by Jakobson’s description.

Jakobson’s idea was a good starting point for Chomsky and Halle’s own set of distinctive features. With Jakobson’s Distinctive features serving as a terminus a quo for Chomsky and Halle, they were able to refine Jakobson’s set of features. A great achievement done by this duo is that they were able to establish the idea of “Natural Classes”. The aim is to carefully choose distinctive features to form a natural class of phonemes. An advantage of this approach is seen in writing Phonological rules hence, we get to understand why we can still comprehend to some words though they are mispronounced.

Another is that if we are to choose the features well, it should be possible to refer to natural classes of phonemes with a smaller number of features, therefore allowing a more refined set of characteristics to describe the phonemes involved in a natural class. Chomsky and Halle also introduced the feature classifications such as the major class features, the manner features and the place features thus paving the way for a more organized description in giving characteristics of phonemes.

Chomsky and Halle was able to answer the concerns of redundancy when giving features, which is found in Generative Phonology, a component of generative grammar that assigns the correct phonetic representations to utterances in such a way as to reflect a native speaker’s internalized grammar. Given the current situation, I would have to choose Chomsky and Halle’s Theory of Distinctive Features as the most functional, because it is able to give more specific descriptions as compared to Trubetzkoy and Jakobson.

Since we have established that Chomsky and Halle’s set gives the most detailed, comprehensive and most organized distinctive features, it would be best to follow their findings. But It is also important to note that without the ideas of Trubetzkoy and Jakobson in the Distinctive Feature theory, Chomsky and Halle’s own theory would not be as it is today, not able to answer loopholes and deficiencies found in the previous studies. So for me, it is like a ladder, one has to go through the intial steps first before reaching your destination, because as what my teacher would have said, “so as not to lose your momentum. ” Bibliography

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