The Privative Project: is it still worth pursuing?

Work on subsegmental representation takes a central place in phonological theorising for many phonologists. The importance that such issues have had in the phonological mainstream has waxed and waned, however. After a focus on rules and rule interaction in early generative phonology, the 'representational turn' during the 1980s and early 1990s saw a blossoming of research at the subsegmental level. More recently, however, many phonologists' attention has turned to other matters.

One substantial point of disagreement which arose early in such discussion was which, if any, subsegmental primes ('features', 'components', 'elements', 'oppositions') should be see as privative ('monovalent', 'unary'), and which should be seen as binary-valued. One position argued, following Jakobson, that all features are binary. Another position (which probably became the mainstream assumption, and was in line with Trubetzkoy) was that some features are binary, and others, where the arguments are clear, are privative. A third position argued that, as a matter of principle, all features should be thought to be privative; standard arguments for this position are that it allows for a simpler and more tightly constrained model of phonology, which avoids overgeneration. This third position is what we mean by 'the Privative Project': the attempt to argue that phonology is best analysed if we assume that all features are single-valued (and are hence either present or absent, such that there are no negative values). It is typically combined with the idea that we should work to constrain subsegmental models, and use only a small number of features. It has been proposed in a number of related and unrelated frameworks (Dependency Phonology, Government Phonology, Particle Phonology, the Parallel Structures Model) and by others, too.

While many have argued in favour of the Privative Project, it has not convinced the phonological majority. Indeed, with the advent of OT, general questions of representation are no longer hotly pursued by many, and much work now has returned to a Jakobsonian/SPE model of representation, with feature-binarity commonly assumed. Some phonologists have even rejected discrete, categorial features entirely. Work which assumes the values of the Privative Project has never ceased, however, and it has always been strongly pursued in a number of quarters. Furthermore, some recent strands of work within OT have argued that the best analyses require that a greater role be given to representations (again), and seek to incorporate more theorised subsegmental models into the broad OT framework.

Given all this, this workshop asks the question: "is the Privative Project still worth pursuing?" Should phonologists assume that subsegmental features can be privative? Should we assume that they all are? Or has this approach always been misguided? If so, why? And if not, why not? We hope to reconsider old arguments afresh at the workshop, and to consider new arguments which have not previously been brought into the debate. Arguments based on both theory and data are welcome.

This workshop will directly precede the Sixth Old World Conference in Phonology, and those attending are encouraged to stay for the full conference, too. The workshop will also be advertised to those attending the OCP. We feel that Edinburgh is a particularly suitable place to consider these issues given that Dependency Phonology, one of the earliest influential privative models, was originally developed here.


  • Introduction: Bert Botma (Leiden) & Patrick Honeybone (Edinburgh) + written questions from John Anderson
  • Sylvia Blaho (Tromsø)
  • Janet Grijzenhout (Konstanz)
  • Aditi Lahiri (Oxford)
  • Keren Rice (Toronto)
  • Tobias Scheer (Nice)
  • Norval Smith (Amsterdam) & Harry van der Hulst (Connecticut)
  • Christian Uffmann (Sussex)
The programme for the workshop (and the OCP6) is available here

Organisers and contact details

The workshop is organised by Bert Botma (Leiden University) and Patrick Honeybone (University of Edinburgh). Feel free to get in touch with any queries.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ATTEND THE WORKSHOP ON 21st JANUARY, YOU MUST EMAIL THE ORGANISERS. This is so that we can plan for numbers. Please send an email saying that you'd like to attend (it's free) to:

Click here to go to the main OCP6 page.