Altho a feature can be modeled as unordered value-attribute pairs (+cons, -syll, etc.), The matrices in which the features are attested must be ordered, correct?

After all, The three matrices that comprise the word "sick" [sIk] are the same three matrices that comprise the word "kiss" [kIs]. Just the ordering is different.

So it is accurate to reason as follows:

  • Feature matrices are comprised of features, which are unordered value-attribute pairs
  • While the features are unordered, the matrices in which they are attested are ordered relative to each other in the formation of a word/morpheme


  • 1
    Yes, but this is implied already by the term "matrix".
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:01

1 Answer 1


SPE-era phonologists used the term "matrix" for features, primarily because that is a term used by Chomsky and Halle, but users were generally unaware of the mathematical properties of matrices, as the term is used in mathematics (that elements are strictly ordered). Essentially, all that people were committed to was the graphic presentation.

There were two ways of presenting a phonological string: as an ordered set of column vectors (each called a "matrix"), or as one nxm matrix of n segments. The latter representation was not particularly common, and the brackets were generally taken to specifically represent "segment". In rule formalism, you never encounter an nxm matrix, instead you encounter an ordered sequence of columnar "matrices". But as discussed here, ordering of features within a segment is redundant (and the number of value-attribute pairs in any segment is not predictable by convention, so features must be "labeled"), so since there is no reason to additionally impose order on features within a segment, "matrix" is not really an appropriate term describing a segment.

It would be appropriate to say that a phonological string is a row vector of sets of features: elements in each set (segment) are not ordered, but each set (segment) is ordered w.r.t. other segments. Which is exactly the situation that you described.

  • Eric Raimy and Charles Reiss have done some work on explicit representation of ordering of feature sets within (a particular theoretical approach to) morphophonological representations.
    – Fred
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 17:48

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