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A brief history of features

Anna Kibort

The use of features can be considered to have begun in phonology, in an attempt to 'resolve speech into ultimate units' (Jakobson, Fant & Halle 1951:1). Distinctions between speech sounds are normally made within a limited number of phonetic parameters. Therefore, the characterisation of a phonological element with a set of distinctive features is meant to distinguish it from all other elements of the same inventory and at the same time identify it as occupying a particular place in a complex network of contrasts (Brasington 1993:1042). The concept of feature developed in phonology in the first half of the 20th century was quickly transfered to other areas of linguistic description. Semantic and morphological characteristics of words started being treated as formal 'features'. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, componential (lexical semantic) analysis was developed by European and American linguists, to some extent independently of each other. In the early 1960s features entered syntactic theorising and have since been given a major role in several syntactic frameworks.


  • Brasington, Ron. 1994. Distinctive features. In: Asher, R.E. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 1042-1052.
  • Jakobson, Roman, C. Gunnar M. Fant & Morris Halle. 1951/52. Preliminaries to Speech Analysis. The Distinctive Features and their Correlates. Acoustics Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Technical Report 13, January.

How to cite this entry:

Kibort, Anna. "A brief history of features." Grammatical Features. 7 January 2008.

Content last updated 7 January 2008
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