The Distinctive Feature Concept. The Binary Choice

Part of the Kommunikation und Kybernetik in Einzeldarstellungen book series (COMMUNICATION, volume 2)


The concept of distinctive feature is just as basic in structural linguistics as are the phoneme and the sign. This concept is in fact a necessary consequence of the phonemic principle, and more particularly of phonemic classification and of phonemic codes, in so far as these are based on physical criteria1. It thus follows automatically from what was said above (in Chap. II) about the communication process and about encoding and decoding of a message. If the linguistic mechanism is a game with oppositions and identities, we have to face the problem: what is the minimal difference between the terms of an opposition? The answer must be that the slightest difference admitted between two phonemes is a distinctive feature. A phoneme thus becomes a bundle of distinctive features. Those are the ultimate distinctive units in language, the atoms of linguistic structure.


Distinctive Feature Binary Choice Primary Recognition Phonemic Classification Russian Woman 
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Bibliographical Notes

  1. The concept of distinctive feature was at the base already of the phonological program presented to the First International Congress of Linguistics in Amsterdam in 1928 (“Actes du premier congrès de linguistes”, 1928, pp. 33 – 36) by Jakobson, Karcevsky, and Trubetzkoy, and it was developed by Trubetzkoy in “Grundzüge”, pp.29ff. It was more expressly formulated in JakobsonFantHalle, “Preliminaries”, 1952 (reprint 1955). For the following discussion about this basic concept and the binary principle we limit our references to a few notes: D. B. Fry in “For Roman Jakobson”, pp. 169–173; Martinet in “Économie”, pp. 73ff.; J. R. Licklider in “Journal of the Acoustical Society of America” XXIV, 1952, p. 594; P. L. Garvin, in “Language” XXIX, 1953, pp.472–481 (the quotation on p.479);Google Scholar
  2. H. Mol and E. M. Uhlenbeck in “Lingua” IV, 1954, pp. 167–193;Google Scholar
  3. G. Ungeheuer in “Studia linguistica” XIII, 1959, pp.60–97.Google Scholar
  4. V. Brøndal’s contribution is to be found in “Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague” VI, 1936, pp. 62–74 (“La structure des systèmes vocali-ques”).Google Scholar
  5. For the articulatory orientation of the classical phoneticians, see e.g. O. Russell, “The Vowel”, 1928. Winteler’s scheme can be found in Sievers’ “Grundzüge”, 2nd ed., p. 70. Winteler’s most famous book is “Die Kerenzer Mundart des Kantons Glarus”, 1876. He was one of the forerunners of phonemics. — Sol Saporta’s and Ungeheuer’s works have been quoted above. Gote Hanson’s investigation (from the Institute of Phonetics, Uppsala) is from 1962 (“Phoneme Perception. A Factorial Investigation” /Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis 1960/. The passage quoted from Uldall is to be found in “Outline of Glossematics” p. 29. The quotation from A. Liberman is taken from his article in Sol Saporta’s “Psycholinguistics”, mentioned in the notes to the Introduction. The reference to Herdan concerns what he says in “Language as Choice and Chance”, p. 162. For the problem of phonemic interpretation of foreign phonemes, see the reference made in Chap. IV. — For the discussion about the binary principle, see M. Halle, “In the Defense of number two” /Studies presented to J. Whatmough, 1957/, and Jakobson’s works quoted above; cp. also e.g. Meyer-Eppler, “Grundlagen”, p. 319ff. The quotation on p. 126 is taken from p. 320 in his book.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin · Heidelberg 1967

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of ArtsUniversity of LundSweden

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