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PHONOLOGY: A Description of English Vowels Provided by H. Giegerich and How It Differs from that by A.C. Gimson

Updated on March 16, 2017

PHONOLOGY: A Description of English Vowels Provided by H. Giegerich and How It Differs from that by A.C. Gimson


Giegerich’s description of the English vowels takes a different approach from the traditional approach to vowel description adopted by Daniel Jones and A. C. Gimson. This difference is believed to result from a quest by phoneticians to find the best way to represent language sounds, showing that there is currently no particular fixed presentation of the way phonetic symbols should be written or described. This attempt to employ an adequate mode of phonemic description as propounded by H. Giegerich is called theory of distinctive features.

Reference Accents

Geigerich emphasizes the relationship in the vowel realization of three specific accents: Received Pronunciation (RP), Southern Scottish English (SSE) and General American English (GA) which he refers to as reference accents and none of the three is necessarily considered the best accent.

Gimson also discusses the variation between the three accents and other accents but as standard regional accents. He does not appear to share in Geigerich’s intention to strike a balance among the three varieties. He presents them only as different accents comparable to the RP, and the RP is probably still presented as the more prestigious variety.

Binary description

Giegerich, in his theory of distinctive features seeks to fully and economically express the phonemic contrasts of a language using the binary labeling presented as [+X] and [-X]. The presentation is done in the following way:

Phoneme A Phoneme B Phoneme C Phoneme D

+X +X -X -X

+Y -Y +Y -Y

where X and Y represent phonetic qualities of the phonemes of a language.

This theory also presents features that can be generally used in every area of phonemic descriptions, not one that will either describe vowels only, and probably required a different specification of feature description for consonants. Phonemes should be described in a way that will accurately show the particular phoneme as distinct from other phonemes in a very economical and manageable manner.

He introduces the use of binary features but observes that the binarity of feature may not efficiently distinguish sounds in every phonological environment; thus, he examines the use of phonemic and phonetic characteristics of phonemes, where the binary feature specification falls under phonetic characteristics of phonemes. He describes phonemes in terms of contrastive function, descriptive function and classificatory function. Below is the mode of description adopted by Giegerich.

i I u ʊ e ε o ^ ɑ a ɔ ɒ

[Consonantal] - - - - - - - - - - - -

[Sonorant] + + + + + + + + + + + +

[Continuant] + + + + + + + + + + + +­­

[Back] - - + + - - + + + - + +

[High] + + + + - - - - - - - -

[Low] - - - - - - - - + + + +

[Round] - - + + - - + - - - + +

[Tense] - - + - + - + - + - + -

Redundancy rule

The redundancy rule by Giegerich is in other words called the rule that predicts a redundant phonological feature from nonredundant ones. This implies that some features discussed by Gimson can be said to be redundant, therefore quite less important. He explains that tense vowels are usually long. In that situation, if a phoneme is described as tense, there is no use mentioning that it is long. He shows this in the following way:

  1. [+tense] [+ long]
  2. [- tense] [- long]

The arrows imply that a tense vowel is equally long and a non-tense (lax) is equally not long. That is to say that if /i/ is described as [ + tense], then predictably, it is long.

In his defence of this argument, he explains that

  1. It is difficult to define “long” and “short” than it is to define tenseness in absolute terms.
  2. Listeners don’t necessarily use it to distinguish the two phonemes.
  3. Not one of the three reference accents has such a distinction.

/i/ bee bead bean beat

/I/ - bid bin bit

He observes that it is quite acceptable that the /i/ in bead, bean, and beat is longer than /I/ in bid, bin and bit in the other of their pairing - up and down. However, /i/ in bee is realised as longer than the one in bead which is in turn longer than the one in bean. In the same manner, the /I/ in bid is longer than the one in bin which is in turn longer than the one in bit. He explains that the long vowel /i/ in beat is shorter than the /I/ in bin.

The use of +/- signs to indicate the presence or absence of a feature in a phoneme is essential to achieve the redundancy avoidance intention which is equally economical. For instance, [+ Tense] and [+ High] automatically mean [- Lax] and [- Low] respectively, so that there is no need to include the four features at the same time when specifying the features of a particular phoneme.


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