Phonology is a language rule that concerns itself with the usage and organization of sounds in natural languages. It also concerns itself with the sound systems or sound structures in languages and its focus is usually on the mental depiction of sounds. Accordingly, it determines the language sounds that may be combined and those that may not be combined. For example, it will never be possible to combine dn in English because phonology does not allow it. On the other hand, distinctive features are the exclusive attributes in languages that distinguish sound speeches of languages. They bring the minimal contrastive units in phonological language systems (Anyanwu, 2008). Based on their roles in languages, they may help in explaining the structure of language sound systems. For example, they may help in explaining why many languages do not have sounds for a set of bdg. They may also help in distinguishing meanings of words by explaining the differences of their final sounds. For example, they help in distinguishing meanings for the words cap and cab by differentiating the final sounds of these words (Skandera, & Burleigh, 2011).
The need for distinctive features in phonology
As indicated earlier on, we need distinctive features in phonology to differentiate words that have different meaning, but they would otherwise appear as if they do not have different meaning. For example, consider the word surf and serve. These two words are different from each other, but in the absence of distinctive features that in nature help in distinguishing speech sounds of such words, it would appear as if these two words have the same meaning. In this case, distinctive features clarify the differences between the final sounds of these words thereby help in distinguishing the meanings of these two words. In particular, they clarify the difference between surf and serve. This explains why we need these features in phonology (Skandera, & Burleigh, 2011).
Other than differentiating words that have different meanings, we also need distinctive features in phonology to capture and describe the natural classes of segments in languages. This is in relation to the fact that languages naturally refer to unique segment groups defined by phonetic properties. As this takes place, it becomes necessary for us to capture and describe the respective language segment classes using these features. On the other hand, we need these features in phonology for us to use phonological rules effectively. This is in relation to the fact that these features facilitate the use of assimilation rules in the production of speeches (Odden, 1994). We also need these features in the generalization of habitually occurring phenomena and prediction of behaviors of class members in the natural classes. In the absence of these features, it would be impossible to generalize habitually occurring phenomena and predict behaviors of class members in the natural classes.
Nature of distinctive features in phonology
As we use distinctive features in phonology to distinguish sound speeches, these features should have the following characteristics. First, they should be able to characterize natural segment classes in languages. This is in relation to the fact that in some instances languages are able to refer to certain groups of segments while in other instances they are not able to refer to such segments. This indicates that segments in natural groups have certain things in common. For this reason, distinctive features should be able to characterize these segments in different languages such that in the future there would be no need for developing other features (Jensen, 2004). This aspect is important because human beings are unlikely to change the way they handle and use their languages. Second, distinctive features should be able to describe the segmental contrasts that exist in all world languages. This means that distinctive features should be able to characterize these segments using different combination of features. The rationale is that we should not end up with distinctive features that are not able to differentiate between different letters such as b and p. If this would take place, then distinctive features would cease to be unique. Third, it should be easy to define distinctive features using phonetic terms. This means that distinctive features should be able to group sounds based on their phonetically similar features (Pennington, 2014). This aspect helps in understanding and explaining some phonological processes from their phonetic correlates.
Distinctive features play unique functions in phonology. First, they provide each distinctive sound unit in human language with unique sets of features that differentiate them from other sound units. For example, even if in terms of redundancy b and d have +voices, distinctive features provide the sound units of each letter with unique features that differentiate the two letters. For this reason, we are able to differentiate the sound units for the two letters. Second, they provide natural ways of classifying sound classes that go together in phonological operations (Skandera, & Burleigh, 2011). Third, they provide formal means of conveying the notions of natural classes in languages. When distinctive features do this, they enable us to express phonological rules that apply to natural classes of segments in simpler terms. In reality, the use of distinctive features in phonology is aimed at capturing the simplicity of a phonological rule with an intention of picking the simplest phonological rule.
Benefits of adopting distinctive features
At this point, it would be important to note that adopting these features in phonology would help in many ways. First, it would help in clarifying the differences and similarities that exist in sound patterns of different languages (Odden, 1994). For example, it would help in understanding that while voicing is a distinctive feature in English, it is not a distinctive feature in other languages such as Korean. At the same time, it would help in understanding that while aspiration is a distinctive feature in Korean language, it is not a distinctive feature in English. Second, it would help in understanding the way sound patterns of different languages may change with time. Third, it would help in describing and evaluating the different sets of speech sounds in different languages thereby help in understanding the differences among different world languages. Fourth, it helps in determining and writing the concise phonological rules that guide speech sounds of different languages (Pennington, 2014). This is in relation to the fact that these rules rely heavily on these features. Fifth, it helps in specifying the different types of phonemes and classifying them.
In conclusion, it would be important to acknowledge the fact that adoption of distinctive features in phonology is an important aspect. It helps in distinguishing speech sounds that may otherwise be tricky to distinguish. It helps in classifying natural class segments in different world languages.
Anyanwu, R. (2008). Fundamentals of phonetics, phonology and tonology: With specific African sound patterns. Frankfurt, M: Lang.
Jensen, J. (2004). Principles of generative phonology: An introduction. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Odden, D. (1994). Introducing phonology. London: Cambridge University press.
Pennington, M. (2014). Phonology in English language teaching: an international approach. New York: Routledge.
Skandera, P., & Burleigh, P. (2011). A manual of English phonetics and phonology: Buch. Tubingen: Narr.