Reductio ad discrimen: Where features come from


  • Elizabeth Cowper University of Toronto
  • Daniel Currie Hall Saint Mary's University



features, phonology, syntax, UG, Trubetzkoy, Jakobson


This paper addresses two fundamental questions about the nature of formal features in phonology and morphosyntax: what is their expressive power, and where do they come from? To answer these questions, we begin with the most restrictive possible hypothesis (all features are privative, and are wholly dictated by Universal Grammar, with no room for cross-linguistic variation), and examine the extent to which empirical evidence from a variety of languages compels a retreat from this position. We argue that there is little to be gained by positing a universal set of specific features, and propose instead that the crucial contribution of UG is the language learner's ability to construct features by identifying correlations between contrasts at different levels of linguistic structure. This view resonates with current research on how the interaction between UG and external 'third factors' shapes the structure of language, while at the same time harking back to the Saussurean notion that contrast is the central function of linguistic representations.