Distinctive Features


Distinctive features are properties of sounds (consonants and vowels) which allow linguists to make generalizations and descriptions across all of the world languages. Each segment or sound is a unique combination of distinctive features. Distinctive features are described in terms of its phonetic properties; that is, the articulatory or acoustic characteristics of a sound.

Sounds which share some of the same distinctive features are referred to as natural classes. Natural classes illustrate differences and similarities between a language’s sounds. Natural classes are useful in describing phonological processes and constraints, as they are generalizable and processes and constraints often apply to a set of sounds sharing some similar property.

The ways in which distinctive features can be used to describe sounds is illustrated in the following example:

  • The phonemes /p t k/ are all related as they are voiceless stops (manner of articulation). They do differ, however, in their places of articulation.
  • The segments /p t k/ may be characterized as follows in terms of their distinctive features:
    • p [bilabial, plosive, -voice]
    • t [alveolar, plosive, -voice]
    • k [velar, plosive, -voice]
This chart from Riggle, J (2011) encapsulates the features shared by all of the world’s languages.