Ambivalent segments are speech sounds whose cross-linguistic patterning is especially variable, creating contradictions for theories of universal distinctive features. This paper examines lateral liquids, whose [continuant] specification has been the subject of controversy because of their ability to pattern both with continuants and with non-continuants, and because phonetically they are situated in the contested ground between two different articulatory definitions for the feature [continuant]. Evidence from a survey of sound patterns in 561 languages shows that lateral liquids, like nasals, pattern with continuants about as often as with non-continuants. Ambivalent phonological behaviour is argued to be natural and expected for phonetically ambiguous segments in a theory of emergent distinctive features where features are the result of sound patterns, rather than the other way around.
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