Looking up these five words in dictionaries gives results that are almost identical. In Chinese-English dictionaries, I find explanations identical or very close to:
a characteristic; a distinguishing feature; a distinctive mark
The only difference I can find is that 特性 seems to have the meaning of "property", which the others don't.
Chinese-Chinese dictionaries (below definitions are from this one) give me definitions like:
This isn't very helpful (if it is, please highlight the differences, the ones I have found have turned out to be insignificant when checking sentences from an online corpus).
My next step is to check collocations (I used this corpus). Among the top ten collocations for [名詞]+[特X] where 特X represents the words we're talking about here, there are several identical phrases that exist with all five words:
There are some collocations which rank very high for some of the 特X words, but low for others, e.g.
I don't know if these differences are significant or not, but I think some are. I now leave the area of actual observation and speculate a bit. I'll edit this bit if I turn out to be wrong. :)
特色 seems to usually refer to a positive defining characteristic and is used more about objects than people. Among the 35 top collocations for this word, only 個人特色 is related to people. Can perhaps also be translated to "style" in certain contexts.
特點 seems to indicate a specific feature which marks something as different from something else (or what makes it stand out). At first, I thought this word was more neutral than 特色, but I'm not so sure. Still, it doesn't have the feeling of "style" mentioned above (compare 色/點）.
特性 seems to... sorry, I have no clue here. It might be the case that human-related activities appear more often, but that's about all I can see. Common examples are 文化特性, 生活特性, 市場特性, 聲音特性, 技術特性 etc. Perhaps this is irrelevant. Still, note that the word "property" appears in dictionaries for this word but not the others.
特質 seems to relate to the inner quality or nature of something (性質), including examples like 精神特質, 藝術特質, 心裏特質. That's about all I can find out from looking at examples of collocations.
特徵 again, I have no clue really. This seems to be a general word that can be used to describe features and characteristics of all kinds. The top collocates for this word all appear in at least some of the other 特X words as well.
So, my question is (obviously), what's the difference between these words? Can some of them be used interchangeably? All these are very common, but can someone perhaps comment on the difference between them?
Are there situations where you have to use a specific word (or where it's extremely common at least)? Are there any other rules or patterns to how these words are used?
This question became very long indeed, but it's also quite complex and I wanted to make sure I included what I've come up with so far. Please feel free to add/edit things I've overlooked.