In a number of textbooks, and on the wikipedia page for natural classes, I see that "class" and "natural class" are used interchangeably, see excerpt below (with key words in bold)

In phonology, a natural class is a set of phonemes in a language that share certain distinctive features.[1] A natural class is determined by participation in shared phonological processes, described using the minimum number of features necessary for descriptive adequacy.

Classes are defined by distinctive features having reference to articulatory and acoustic phonetic properties,[2] including manners of articulation, places of articulation, voicing, and continuance. For example, the set containing the sounds /p/, /t/, and /k/ is a natural class of voiceless stops in American Standard English. This class is one of several other classes, including the voiced stops (/b/, /d/, and /g/), voiceless fricatives (/f/, /θ/, /s/, /ʃ/, and /h/), sonorants, and vowels.

In essence, I just wonder what the modifier "natural" means in front of "class". Is there a distinction between a "class" and a "natural class"?

  • I don't know how you can "see" that those terms are used interchangeably. I just reviewed See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_class, and I don't see that. – Greg Lee May 15 '17 at 11:55
  • Perhaps we have a different understanding. I added the first two paragraphs of the wikipedia article. – Teusz May 15 '17 at 12:00
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    It does not follow from what you quote from Wikipedia that the terms class and natural class are interchangeable. If you think it does follow, you must show that. For instance, try to show us that the class of phonemes /p/, /t/, /k/, /b/ is a natural class of phonemes. (It isn't.) – Greg Lee May 15 '17 at 12:21
  • What's the difference between a class and a natural class? In other words, what does "natural" mean? I can find plenty of definitions for "natural class" but none for "class" – Teusz May 15 '17 at 12:28
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    Well, I don't think I can do better than the Wikipedia article, which I think is pretty clear. A natural class of phonemes must include all phonemes which share the phonetic properties of the other members of the class, and similarly for a natural class of sounds (not necessarily phonemes). – Greg Lee May 15 '17 at 12:43

In phonology there is no distinction, and we simply say "natural class" because it is a habit. Some people tend to just say "class", but the most popular expression is "natural class". Theoretically, classes could be divided into "natural" and "unnatural", where {p,r,y,a} is a class (collection) of sounds but they cannot be described "naturally" (using some motivated theory of notation and some motivated theory of features). If you have the right theory of notation and features, the idea was, then "natural class" would in fact be "possible phonological expression" (e.g. [+a,-b,+c...]). The elimination of certain abbreviatory devices from SPE changed (narrowed) our view of what classes are "natural".

  • It's a habit. Got it! Thanks! I was going down a rabbithole in those comments above. Cheers. – Teusz May 15 '17 at 15:45

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