I have been trying to find alternative ways of representing vowel phonemes for cross-linguistic comparisons in a unified, systematic way that would also reveal their relative (un)markedness. At the same time, the way has to be as economical as possible, so that it doesn't multiply entities unnecessarily. A question arises here whether the, now traditional, mainstream approach based on binary oppositions is the best one, or if something along the lines of dependency phonology could be better.
The problem is, for instance, that if we represent back rounded vowels as, say, [-front, +round] and front unrounded vowels as [+front, -round], it is not obvious that, inherently, they are both the unmarked classes, whereas [+front, +round] and [-front, -round] are both the marked classes (as if [+front] and [+round] were in quasi-complementary distribution in terms of markedness). Using [back], [front] and [round] as unary features, for instance, is not helpful either:
- /i/ = [front]
- /u/ = [back, round] (as if it was more marked than /i/, which it isn't)
The evident imbalance is clear when we make [round] the inherent dependent feature of [back] in the feature geometry tree, because then we would have to make [unround] the inherent dependent feature of [front]:
In addition, the strictly binary system also fails to account for the reality of [+low] generally decreasing the (ease of) articulatory "implementability" of either [+round] or [+front] due to physiological constraints, again, as if [+low] were somehow opposed to [+front] and/or [+round], at least to some extent. The same is true of the derived, nasal subsystems in which much stronger nasalization is required in the open vowels for their nasality to be perceived than in the closed ones.
Hence my question in a somewhat different wording:
Are there theoretical approches in phonology that account better for the cross-linguistic markedness tendencies?
Relevant questions to ask might include:
- Does /ɯ/ usually arise from /u/ or from /i/ diachronically? (The example of Japanese seems to suggest the former.)
- Does /y/ usually arise from /i/ or from /u/ diachronically? (Many European languages seem to support the latter.)
- Is it correct to assume that among the close unrounded vowels, the markedness hierarchy is as follows: /i/ < /ɨ/ < /ɯ/?
- Is it correct to assume that mong the close rounded vowels, the markedness hierarchy is as follows: /u/ < /ʉ/ < /y/?
I will be grateful for any comments, suggestions, examples or references.