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A Criticism on Roman Jakobsons Theory of Distinctive Features One of the most influential linguists of the twentieth century, Roman

Osipovich Jakobson is a Russian linguist well known for his work on distinctive features of language. In his book Fundamentals of Language (1956), which he co-authored with Morris Halle, he describes the nature of distinctive features and its role in phonology. He believes that all phonemes have a presence [+] or an absence [-] of a feature. He gains this idea of binarity from the binary oppositions of Nikolai Trubetzkoy, another influential linguist and a colleague of his at the Prague School of Linguistics (Bradford, 1994). He also makes distinction between phonetics and phonology defining the former as the ways by which sound is produced while the latter being the ways by which sound patterns itself into meaningful systems. The uniqueness of the features actually lies in its ability to differentiate each phonemes of any language. He classifies the distinctive features into two: prosodic and inherent features. Prosodic features deals with the contrastive aspect of phonemes which deals with properties of the sound produced, either it be tone feature which is the pitch, force feature which is the loudness, or the quantity feature which is the subjunctive duration (Jakobson and Halle, 22). Each prosodic features vary in terms of their interactions with syllable either inter- or intra-syllabic. On the other hand, inherent features deal with the patterns by which the phoneme makes itself semantically distinct. Jakobson lists 24 features: vocalic/non-vocalic, consonantal/non-consonantal, compact/defuse, tense/lax, voiced/voiceless, nasal/oral, discontinuous/continuant, strident/mellow, checked/unchecked, grave/acute, sharp/plain, and flat/plain (29-31). These features have both acoustic and articulatory (or, in his term, genetic) descriptions, though he focused more on the former. This is on the basis that communication involves a speaker and a listener, an encoder and a decoder of sound-meaning. The sound plays an

Diamzon, R., Garcia, K., Leao, J., Toledo, J., Santos, K. (2010).

important role in creating meaning especially to the listener. However, it is crucial to consider that the function of the sound goes beyond the level of the signifier, how sounds are capable of conveying meaning. Humans speak not just to be heard but, more importantly, to be understood. Instead of dwelling on the phonetic aspect of language, which is what the acoustic phonetics is solely about, Jakobson should have taken into account the semantic aspect of sounds, which is the nature of the study of phonology. Furthermore, although articulatory phonetics does not matter in the case of the listener, as long as the speaker is heard and understood, it is also significant especially for those who are learning pronunciation. It is important to speak appropriately so that other people could understand what one is saying. Jakobson himself identifies the weakness of his theory, or acoustic phonetics in particular. Acoustic phonetics fails to provide a sole basis for the taxonomy and the systematization of the phonemic aspect of language. It can give concrete, graphic image of a sound but cannot interpret the said image. Although it can give both the similarities and differences of two sounds, acoustic phonetics cannot distinguish the intrinsic properties and the significance of these similarities and differences. It is even unable to identify whether it is a case of two distinct features of one sound or two different sounds. (Mindari, 2008) Jakobson, Fant and Halle (1952) suggested that a category of semivowels are not necessary. In their view, there is only an allophonic difference between semi-vowels and vowels. They transcribed woo and ye as /uuu/ and /iii/ instead of the /wuw/ and /yiy/ as was the contemporary practice for American English. However, Maddieson and Emmorey (1985) have shown that there is a clear articulatory difference between vowels and semivowels such as these in three very different languages Amharic, Yoruba, and Zuni. There are cross-language differences between the semi-vowels in these languages, and these differences are correlated

Diamzon, R., Garcia, K., Leao, J., Toledo, J., Santos, K. (2010).

with cross-language differences between the vowels. But within each language the semivowels differ from the corresponding vowels in that they are produced with narrower constrictions of the vocal tract. Jakobson and his colleagues also believed that languages do not contrast implosives and stops at the same place of articulation, but such contrasts have been reported by Robin Thelwall in a number of languages, including Uduk, A Nilo-Saharan Language. Another weakness of Jakobson's theory was that it was not certain exactly what was meant by a number of acoustic terms, several sounds did not seem to be uniquely described by the suggested set of features. Take the fundamental source feature which involves vocalic vs. nonvocalic and consonantal vs. nonconsonantal for example. The vocalic vs. nonvocalic feature helps differentiate vowels from consonants, although it is not identical with the traditional vowel-consonant distinction. Vocalics are sounds which have well-defined resonance patterns. Meanwhile, consonantals are marked by a major drop in vocal energy. By definition a vocalic is not a consonantal and vice versa hence, the opposition of vocalic to nonvocalic and consonantal and non-consonantal is redundant and not a unique description. Even though Jakobson based his theories on Trubetzkoys, their differences are still apparent. The contribution of Trubetzkoy lies in the developing of the notion of phonological opposition, and relations between the members of an opposition. If he defined the phoneme as the smallest distinct unit and incapable of further subdivision, Jakobson saw it as the sum of features that distinguish the phonemes from each other. This led to the creation of a new approach to phonological description that was based on the structuralist ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Diamzon, R., Garcia, K., Leao, J., Toledo, J., Santos, K. (2010).

In his reviews on Jakobson and Halles Fundamental of Language, Noam Chomsky agrees that sound systems of all human languages could be characterized by a limited number of universal distinctive features. On the one hand, Chomsky argues that their hypothesis have to be more explicit and precise for them to be tested empirically. He suggests relating these features to the actual use of speech. He also emphasized the importance of simplicity in empirical research and phonological analyses because some of their arguments have the tendency to be redundant overstatement of facts and exaggeration of the pure and simple concepts. In order to address the weak points, Chomsky collaborated with Halle and formulated a theory which they called theory of generative phonology. It is a synthesis of Jakobson and Halles distinctive features and phonemic analysis. It is a revision in accordance to Chomskys emphasis on explicitness, simplicity and autonomy of mental representations. Jakobsons theory of distinctive features has its contributions as well as drawbacks. It presented these features with both acoustic and articulatory. It reveals the importance of sound in creating meaning to the listener. However, by concentrating on the former, Jakobson neglected the semantic aspect of sounds. Moreover, acoustic phonetics fails to identify whether it is a case of two distinct features or one sound or two different sounds. For instance, Jakobson and his colleagues suggest that there is only an allophonic difference between semi-vowels and vowels when there is a clear articulatory difference between them. On his suggested list of features, there are redundant features, i.e. vocalic/nonvocalic and consonantal/nonconsonantal. This constitutes that these features are not unique descriptions.

Diamzon, R., Garcia, K., Leao, J., Toledo, J., Santos, K. (2010).

References: Bradford, Richard. Roman Jakobson: Life, language, art. London: Routledge, 1994. Caton, S. C. Contributions of Roman Jakobson. Annual Review of Anthropology 16 (1987): 223-260. Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle. Some controversial questions in phonological theory. Journal of Linguistics 1.2 (1965): 97-138. Dresher, B. Elan. Chomsky and Halle's Revolution in Phonology. University of Toronto: 2004. Jakobson, Roman and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. Muton & Co: 1956. Koerner, E.F.K. Remarks on the Sources of R. Jakobsons Linguistic Inspiration. Cahiers de lILSL 9 (1997): 151-168. Ladefoged, Peter and Ian Maddieson. The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. Mindari, Ruruh. A Brief Look at Roman Jakobsons Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. Bahasa dan Seni 36.2 (2008): n. pag. Tiffany, William R. Phonetics : Theory and Application 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.

Diamzon, R., Garcia, K., Leao, J., Toledo, J., Santos, K. (2010).