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Inside the sounds of speech, the ‘phonemes’, there are the properties known as ‘features’ which distinguish T from D and S, the vowel in hid from the vowels in heed and head, and all the other comparable contrasts in the language. The first attempt to derive  the phonemes, from features, was by William Holder in 1669. Holder’s system was progressively refined and developed by numerous scholars, most notably by Chomsky and Halle in SPE in 1968.

For English the following features (broadly from Chomsky and Halle, 1968) are enough to keep them apart from one another:

For vowels:

  • Where the tongue is in the mouth – up at the top, down at the bottom, or in the middle, towards the front of the mouth or at the back,
  • Whether the tongue is tensed and as close as possible to the edge of this space, making the vowel long,
  • Whether it moves from one position to another, as in the case of the diphthongs in high and how,
  • Whether the lips are rounded as in rue and raw, or not as in hay and high.

For consonants:

  • Whether, most fundamentally, the role of the sound in the syllable is as its ‘nucleus’, typically the vowel, or whether it is a consonant.
  • The continuance of the airstream (distinguishing T from S) – whether the airstream is continuous or not, where sounds like T are generally characterised as ‘stops’ because of the totality of the closure, and sounds like S are generally characterised as ‘fricatives’ because of the friction;
  • The place of any constriction – whether the airstream is ‘stopped’ or ‘bottle-necked’ at the lips, or with the tip of the tongue, or the back of the tongue (distinguishing T from P and K);
  • Whether the airstream is initially stopped and then just partially released as in the cases of the initial sounds in chore and jaw;
  • The relative timing of any involvement of the vocal folds (distinguishing ‘voiceless’ or ‘unvoiced’ T from ‘voiced’ D, P from B, S from Z, CH from J);
  • In the cases of voiceless stops, whether the delay in the voicing is increased by what is known as ‘aspiration’, as in pie, tie and cow in English, but not where the stop follows S, as in spy, sty, and scow.
  • Whether the airstream passes through the nose (distinguishing N from D);
  • Whether the main effect is to constrict the airway or to resonate, with this resonance – or ‘sonority’ characteristic of L, R, N, M, W, Y);
  • In the case of fricatives, whether the ‘noise’ falls below a given frequency, as it does with TH (distinguishing TH from S, F, and SH).
  • In the cases of S and SH (both with the tongue completely inside the mouth) S, unlike SH, makes the constriction with the tip or apex of the tongue.

    But the learner has no privileged information about his or her target language, with its phonemes exclusively defined in this way,

    From Holder’t time until the present, including attempts to improve on the SPE system, it has been assumed that the system should apply to all human languages. Although most phonemes in most languages fit the Holder, Chomsky, Halle schema, a more complete schema represents an ongoing challenge. This applies even to well-studied languages including English. But one of the greatest challenges is represented by phonemes characteristic of many African languages and some Asian languages in which the airstream is simultaneously stopped at two points. Although this does not happen in English, such an articulation is sometimes heard from children with no obvious contact with any relevant language when they try to say the word monopoly with a double articulation instead of the P – as MONOKPOLI. Various analyses are possible. But the mere fact that such forms are heard is robust evidence for a universal analysis of the feature system and for applying such a system in speech pathology. The fact that no such system currently exists should not be an impediment.