Features in child phonology

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The emergence of features plays a key role in any theory of phonological development that does not assume that they are innately available before the onset of speech. After reviewing Jakobson’s claims for universal orders of emergence, we consider possible criteria for feature or segment acquisition, and then discuss data from nearly 50 children (10 languages including Estonian, Finnish, Japanese, and Welsh as well as several Germanic and Romance languages). Small early vocabularies and phonetic variability make minimal pairs rare in most children. While a few children show clear evidence of utilizing features or segments, others show none, and most fall between these extremes. Gradually increasing evidence of segmental structure and systematicity reflects the slow transition to a more orderly phonology. These data support an emergentist model of feature acquisition that has many possible routes to (re-)creating phonological organization within the individual child’s mind.


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