16.1 Phonetic & Phonological Analysis: Can you Dissect the concept of distinctive oppositions?

Chapter 16

16.1 Dissect the concept of distinctive oppositions

Distinctive oppositions


Opposition is a central concept in phonology. Oppositions between phonemes are

classified according to three different aspects of the phoneme’s phonetic qualities.

 A phoneme’s relation to the entire phonetic system

This is the phoneme’s opposition to other members of the phoneme system. It can be in terms of Dimensions of opposition

a) Bilateral opposition – one – dimensional oppositions. These give only two members of an opposition. E.g. the phonetic quality [voice] gives [±voice] or the phonetic [±nasal].

b) Multilateral opposition – multidimensional opposition. These give more than one number of an opposition. E.g. manner of articulation gives stops, trills, tap or flap, fricatives, approximants.

Isolated and proportional oppositions

a) Proportional opposition. The same phonetic relationship that classifies one opposition recurs in other oppositions e.g. [plosion] classifies pb td kg qg etc [fricative]

b) Isolated opposition. The phonetic quality that classifies an opposition does not recur in other oppositions e.g. B/r/R – [trills] [pharyngeal] ħ, approximant. Both – alveolar, tip of the tongue.

The opposition corresponding to the relation between phonemes that are

members of an opposition

There are three types – privative, gradual, equipollent.

a) Privative opposition

One member is characterized by the presence of a property that the other member lacks. The member with the quality is said to marked [the phonetic quality] the other member is unmarked. E.g. [t, d] (voice) or [n, d] (nasal)

b) Gradual opposition

Where there is appearance of different degrees of the same quality e.g. horizontal tongue position of vowels. It is not meaningful to say [±back] because a vowel could be [central] or [front]

c) Equipollent opposition

In this opposition there is no question of a ‘mark’ or ‘degree’ to which some property is present e.g. if one were to explain the opposition between p/t

  • Both are voiceless i.e. saying that they are unmarked for voice is not relevant.
  • Both are stops
  • They do not have different degrees of the same quality.
  • The two members are considered to be logically equal in terms of the state of the glottis/manner of articulation.


The distinctive validity of the phoneme

Constant and suspendable oppositions

In linguistics, a distinctive feature is the most basic unit of phonological structure that may be analyzed in phonological theory. Distinctive features are grouped into categories according to the natural classes of segments they describe: major class features, laryngeal features, manner features, and place features.



Both members occur in the same environment without restrictions e.g.

open/ close vowels e.g. /i/ /æ/ ;/kit/ /kæt/



In some positions, no opposition exists between two members = neutralization. It can be:

i) context – determined : depends on surrounding phonemes in German Danish

/p/ /b/ in word final position e.g. neutralization of [t voice] in consonants

before fricatives or stops in Russian.

ii) Structure – determined in which the neutralization depends on position in word or syllable or on accent. E.g. the opposition between voiced and unvoiced consonants in word final position – German and Russian. Or in German – the long and short vowels in final word position. The concept of neutralization covers minimal contrasts – it is only possible where there is a bilateral opposition between members e.g. s/z, p/b, t/d, i/l: 

The sound realized represents an archiphoneme. This can be:

a) Realized as a sound which is phonetically identified to one of the members of the opposition e.g. boud/ bout in German [t] or [d] could be realized.

b) Realized as sound intermediate between the two members. Often transcribed by use of a capital letter /t/, /d/ – [T]


 Systematization of phonological member units

Oppositions were analyzed according to the distinctive qualities utilized; therefore,

phonemes are arranged in systems


1. Vowels: vocalic properties

They are set up in two-dimensional system in the shape of a quadrangle.

There are two main types of vocalic properties.

a) localization (an acoustic property) that gives the position of formant and lip

     rounding e.g. for /u/ high us / כ / low back

b) Degree of aperture = tongue height.


 2. Consonantal properties: consonant

a) according to place of articulation

b) According to presence or absence of sharp frictional noise i.e. Strident vs. mellow(labials/labial dentals); Sibilant vs. non-sibilant; Velar, affricates vs. uvular.



The Prague phonologists chose the concept of opposition as their starting point. They defined the phoneme and phonological unit. Therefore ‘distinctive function’ was stressed on.

1) The arrangement of phonemes into properties. The Prague school differs from other phonology schools in this respect. The Prague differs from other schools. 

The theory of relevant properties became very important to other schools especially the generative phonologists.

2) Universal laws – the Prague phonologist propounded universal laws, e.g. those of systematizing phonological units into phonemic inventories (this was also taken up by Generative phonology) e.g. by use of substitution (commutation) one can establish the phonemes in any language they know.



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