I have a feeling the answer is no, and that there are complications involved, but I was considering this:

[-consonantal, +syllabic]

This would first remove all consonants, leaving e, u, i, and others, and then ensure that the remaining are syllabic, which would rule out glides (like j, w). All vowels should be syllabic, yes?

  • Are you asking for the set of features that vowels can have, such as nasalization, roundedness, front/back, mid/central/low, tone, creaky voice, etc? If not, please consider rewording the question title. Jan 28, 2013 at 4:23
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    @hippietrail: I think the question is whether there exists a set of features that defines the term "vowel". Jan 28, 2013 at 4:26
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    You could define vowels that way, but then how would you define "consonantal"? Jan 28, 2013 at 4:27
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    @hippietrail: I don't think "vowel" even has a well-defined meaning. Several languages, like Slovak, have syllabic obstruents that pattern as vowels. Spanish seems to have 3 levels (vowels/semivowels/consonants). The American English R is called a consonant even though it is a syllabic sonorant that behaves like /i/, which is considered a vowel. Jan 28, 2013 at 5:07
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    @hippietrail: In the context of a particular language, it's often possible to clearly define "vowel"s. It's similar to language-dependent terms like "rhotic" or "syllable"; the terms encompass a vague idea whose boundaries depend on the language. Feb 6, 2013 at 7:39

1 Answer 1


A decent answer by @hippietrail from the comments above:

I think the answer would be "no" given that the same sound might be considered a consonant in one language and a vowel in another. Thus the feature set alone is not sufficient to categorise a segment one way or the other, other factors must be taken into account, possibly including "tradition"...

Ultimately, the feature set notion is not perfectly adequate in describing our notions of vowels.

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    Yes. What counts as a "vowel" is different from one language to another; sometimes quite different. Many phenomena like epenthesis or vocalization in morphology produce spurious "vowels" that have no phonemic realization. Contrariwise, phonemic vowels are often converted to gestures like labialization or palatalization, or to consonants with those properties.
    – jlawler
    Jan 28, 2013 at 17:25

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