B. Elan Dresher is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. He received his PhD (Linguistics) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1978. He has published on phonological theory, learnability, historical linguistics, West Germanic and Biblical Hebrew phonology and prosody, and the history of phonology. His books include Old English and the Theory of Phonology (1985) and The Contrastive Hierarchy in Phonology (2009). He is the author of â€˜The phonemeâ€™ in The Blackwell Companion to Phonology (2011) and articles on the history of contrast in phonology.
I will present a brief introduction to a theory of contrastive feature hierarchies in phonology. This theory builds on ideas that go back to the early days of modern phonology, to the work of Henry Sweet and Edward Sapir. Most directly, the theory adapts proposals by Roman Jakobson and N. S. Trubetzkoy to the generative framework of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle. The first part of this talk will be a historical review of these sources. In the second part I will set out the main tenets of Contrastive Hierarchy Theory (CHT), including the Successive Division Algorithm and the Contrastivist Hypothesis, and consider what implications they have for our understanding of phonological features. I will show how contrastive feature hierarchies contribute to illuminating analyses of synchronic and diachronic phonology. Examples include an analysis of Brazilian Portuguese vowel reduction and the acquisition of the Brazilian Portuguese vowel system, and shifts in the contrastive features of West Germanic vowels and the entry of an enhancement feature into the contrastive phonology.