The arch not the stones: Universal feature theory without universal features


  • B. Elan Dresher University of Toronto



features, phonology, UG, contrastive hierarchy


There is a growing consensus that phonological features are not innate, but rather emerge in the course of acquisition. If features are emergent, we need to explain why they are required at all, and what principles account for the way they function in the phonology. I propose that the learners’ task is to arrive at a set of features that account for the con­trasts and the phonological activity in their language. For the content of the features, learners use the available materials relevant to the modality (spoken or signed). Formally, contrasts are governed by an ordered feature hierarchy. The concept of a contrastive hierarchy is an innate part of Universal Grammar, and is the glue that binds phono­logical representations and makes them appear similar across languages. Examples from the Classical Manchu vowel system show the connection between contrast and phonological activity. I then consider the implications of this approach for the acquisition of phonological representations. The relationship between formal contrastive hierarchies and phonetic substance is illustrated with examples drawn from tone systems in Chinese dialects. Finally, I propose that the contrastive hierarchy has a recursive digital character, like other aspects of the narrow faculty of language.

Author Biography

B. Elan Dresher, University of Toronto

Professor, Department of Languages and Linguistics, and Senior Researcher, Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics