Before we talked about phonemes and said that phonemes are the smallest unit of sound that separates meaning. We already looked at the way phonemes are produced by look at the manners and places of articulations of phonemes, but we can also analyze phonemes by looking at their distinctive features. First, we’ll go over the distinctive features of English phonemes and then we’ll discuss why we need to consider distinctive features. The definitions in quotes come from Heinz J. Giegerich’s English Phonology: An Introduction.
What are the distinctive features of English phonemes?
[Anterior]: Anterior sounds are produced with an obstruction that is located in front of the palato-alveolar region of the mouth; nonanterior sounds are produced without such an obstruction. Bilabial, labiodental, dental and alveolar.
[Back]: The tongue is drawn back. Used for back vowels and [w].
[Continuant]: A continuant is a sound during whose production the air stream is not blocked in the oral cavity.Approximates and fricatives are [+ continuant], stops are [- continuant]. An easy way to remember this is to think if the air can continue going through the oral cavity. If air can continue going through the oral cavity, then it’s a continuant.
[Consonantal]: Consonantal sounds are produced with a radical obstruction in the vocal tract. Vowels and semivowels /j/ and /w/ are [- consonantal] while everything else is [+ consonantal].
[Coronal]: coronal sounds are produced with the blade of the tongue raised above its neutral position; noncoronal sounds are produced with the blade of the tongue in the neutral position.
[High]: The tongue is in a high position. This is used for vowels.
[Lateral]: lateral sounds are produced by lowering the mid section of the tongue at one or both sides, thereby allowing the air to flow out of the mouth in the vicinity of the molar teeth; in nonlateral sounds no such side passage is open.
[Low]: The tongue is in a low position. This is also used for vowels. Mid vowels are [- high] [- low].
[Nasal]: Nasal sounds are produced with a lowered velum which allows the air stream to escape through the nose; nonnasal sounds are produced with a raised velum, so that the air stream can only escape from the mouth.
[Round]: Lips are rounded. Roundness is used to describe vowels.
[Sonorant]: A sonorant is a sound whose phonetic content is predominantly made up by the sound waves associated with voicing. Approximants and nasals are [+ sonorant] as are vowels. Everything else is [- sonorant] and considered an obstruent.
[Strident]: Strident sounds are marked acoustically by greater noiseness than their nonstrident counterparts are. / sʃfʒzv /
[Sibilant]: Air is forced through a small opening and produces a hissing sound.
[Tense]: Vowels that are produced with a contraction of the tongue.
[Voice]: A voiced sound is produced with a glottal setting consistent with vocal-fold vibration’ a voiceless sound is produced with a glottal setting inconsistent with vocal fold vibration.