Distinctive feature

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A distinctive feature ( English distinctive feature ) is an important distinguishing characteristic of linguistic objects.

The term was originally developed in phonology , then made generally fruitful in linguistics and is also used in computational linguistics , among other things .

The distinctive feature in phonology


A phonological distinctive feature is defined as the articulatory property of a sound ( phon ) or the phoneme abstracted from it , which is jointly responsible for the differentiation of meanings within the phonetic system of a single language .

Features that are not responsible for differences in meaning are named redundant features .


  1. For the phoneme / ⁠ p ⁠ / the German following bundling is possible of distinctive features:
    a unvoiced) (as opposed to / ⁠ b ⁠ / )
    b) on the lips (formed unlike / ⁠ t ⁠ / and / ⁠ k ⁠ / )
    c) plosive / plosive (as opposed to / ⁠ f ⁠ / as fricative )
    d) oral volume (as opposed to / ⁠ m ⁠ / , a nasal sound , the bowed velum is produced).
  2. Regarding the feature voicing is the sound [⁠ d ⁠] merkmalhaltig (also a featured ), while the volume [⁠ t ⁠] featureless is.
  3. Looking at a minimal pair , ie a pair of words that apply to different meaning and the same volume number only in a tone different as Beet [ BET ] - bed [ bɛt ], so based their difference only in the sounds [⁠ É ⁠] and [⁠ ɛ ⁠] . These sounds have the following articulatory characteristics:
    • [ ]: medium high, front, unrounded, long
    • [ ɛ ]: medium high, front, unrounded, short
So they only differ in the characteristic short - long . However, this contrast of features alone is capable of recognizing the two words for the speaker and the listener, ie they have a distinctive (distinguishing) function. Such features are therefore called distinctive features . It is therefore clear that the two sounds are also representatives of different phonemes.


The term distinctive feature was originally introduced by Roman Jakobson for phonological units.

As distinctive features are the essential characteristics of the phonemes are the phonemes defined as a "bundle of distinctive features".

In some phonological theories, this leads to regard only the distinctive features and not the phonemes as decisive.

Jakobson established a system of binary features in phonology with which every speech sound can be described. The two-valued phonological distinctive features enable the creation of a feature matrix .

The characteristic analysis of phonemes makes it possible to explain articulatory changes in a language change as processes and to determine so-called regular opposition relationships ( correlations ) in a language (example in German: Lenis / Fortis - / b /: / p /; / g /: / k /).

It is sometimes argued that phonological distinctive features have a universal character.

The phoneme inventory of a language can be reduced to the phonological distinctive features. According to Jakobson (1951) only 12 characteristics are required. Wiese (1996) assumes 37 phonemes and 22 distinctive features for German.

The distinctive feature in linguistics in general

The concept of the characteristic was transferred from phonology to morphology and lexicology .

Generally speaking, a distinctive feature is the property of a linguistic unit that distinguishes meaning, which is determined by comparison with another linguistic unit that corresponds to it except for the distinctive feature.

The distinctive feature in computational linguistics

The term feature is ambiguous in computational linguistics ; in addition to distinctive features, there are also linguistic features in the so-called feature structures .

See also


  • Helmut Glück (Ed.): Metzler Lexicon Language. 4th, updated and revised edition. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2010, ISBN 978-3-476-02335-3 , distinctive feature. (phonology only).
  • Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.) With the collaboration of Hartmut Lauffer: Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. 4th, revised and bibliographically supplemented edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-520-45204-7 , distinctive feature .
  • Duden : The grammar. 8th edition, 2009, ISBN 3-411-04048-3 , pp. 32f.
  • Theodor Lewandowski: Linguistic Dictionary 1st 4th revised edition. Quelle & Meyer, Heidelberg 1984, ISBN 3-494-02020-5 , distinctive features .

Web links

Wiktionary: distinctive feature  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ So Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, pp. 87, 350; Gadler: Practical linguistics. 3. Edition. 1998, p. 59 f.
  2. For example Peter Ernst: German Linguistics. WUV, Vienna 2008 (UTB; 2541), p. 92; similar to Bussmann: Lexicon of Linguistics. 3. Edition. 2002, Distinctive feature : "Class of phonetically defined sub-components of phonemes on which their meaning-distinguishing function is based."
  3. ^ So Peter Ernst: German Linguistics. WUV, Vienna 2008 (UTB; 2541), p. 92.
  4. ^ Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 82.
  5. Following on from Bloomberg , cf. Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 82.
  6. An example from Peter Ernst: German Linguistics. WUV, Vienna 2008 (UTB; 2541), p. 97.
  7. So Ritter: Phonetik und Phonologie. In: Volmert (Hrsg.): Grundkurs Sprachwissenschaft. 5th edition. 2005, p. 82.
  8. ^ Richard Wiese: The Phonology of German. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996 (2000 2 ).
  9. Tscheu: Feature. In: André Martinet (Ed.): Linguistics. 1973, p. 176 (178).
  10. Ulrich: Basic Linguistic Concepts. 5th edition. 2002, distinctive feature.