I am confused about the meaning of markedness. From the Wikipedia page I read:

The dominant term is known as the 'unmarked' term and the other, secondary one is the 'marked' term. In other words, it is the characterization of a "normal" linguistic unit (i.e. the unmarked term) compared to the unit's possible "irregular" forms (i.e. the marked term).

I believe that "dominant" means more frequent, but is it dominant inside one language or considering all natural languages together?

  • a mark can be phonological or morphological/lexical, I believe you are pointing out only to the second case, right?
    – Tames
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:03
  • the dominant term will take place as a generic form (without definition of gender, for exemple) whenever the mark is not relevant to the context in question (e.g. "some wolves ate my sheep", it is not important if they were she-wolves or 'he'-wolves, if I mean to inform only what species of animals did it - wolves and not lions). The dominant term is more extense, therefore can be used in more situations, I'm not sure if this guarantees that it will be more frequent in speech.
    – Tames
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:18
  • What happened to "In this context, is dominance assumed to stem from biological constraints (like some sounds are easier to produce than others) or is this not necessary for the definition of markedness?" You have asked two other questions that seem to be duplicates, but this one hasn't been asked. Why? Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 14:01
  • "dominant" is probably a bad word choice in that WP article. Hmm. More frequent? More general?
    – kaleissin
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 14:05
  • @Otavio Macedo after some fumbling I put it back in this question with slight modification.
    – gui11aume
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 14:27

5 Answers 5


An example, though probably not a very good one, is "lioness" vs. "lion". "Lion" can refer to either male or female lions, whereas "lioness" refers to only female lions. In this example "lioness" is marked and "lion" is unmarked. This is because "lion" is the more general term.

Another example is "young" vs. "old". Here "old" is less obviously unmarked, while "young" is marked. This is a better example. Normally, when I ask a question, I ask "How old is Jim?", because "old" is the unmarked term. This is rather general. I do not appear to be making a presumption about Jim. Conversely, if I asked "How young is Jim?", that presupposes that Jim is young. This is because "young" is the marked term.

So marked vs. unmarked means that two terms with contrasting meaning are asymmetrical in their usage and meaning, and that one of them is more general and dominant.

Of course markedness varies across languages, there are surely some in which "young" is unmarked.

  • 5
    This is a good answer. I would add that markedness is a per-language category. For example, "young" is marked over "old" in English but that doesn't mean that's true in every language. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:52
  • 2
    all done and ready to read!
    – mrr
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:59
  • 2
    Usage of "marked" is pretty confused across (and even sometimes within) linguistic subdisciplines. Elizabeth Hume has written a lot about markedness, and (IMO) done a fair bit to clarify what people mean when they use the term, at least in phonology.
    – Fred
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 20:16
  • This is also why "20 years young" sounds odd compared to "20 years old". "20 years old" is standard English, "20 years young" is a humorous/casual usage.
    – mrr
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 3:12
  • (20 years young is also a poetic usage of course)
    – mrr
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 2:56

In 2005, Martin Haspelmath published a paper called "Against Markedness (and what to replace it with)" which defines twelve different senses of marked, markedness and arguing that this polysemy obfuscates rather than helping and should be eliminated. Unfortunately, he seems to have been a voice crying in the wilderness so far.

The twelve senses:

  1. Trubetskoyan specification for a phonological distinction
  2. Specification for a semantic distinction
  3. Overt coding as opposed to zero
  4. Phonetic difficulty
  5. Morphological difficulty / unnaturalness
  6. Conceptual difficulty
  7. Rarity in texts
  8. Rarity in the world
  9. Restricted distribution
  10. Deviation from a default parameter setting
  11. and a multidimensional correlation between any or all of these.
  • 2
    As much as I like Haspelmath, this sounds much less as a problem of the term "markedness" and more of a problem of certain scholars misusing it. Never heard that markedness would refer to difficulty or rarity. Distribution may be interesting aspect to study for it but again, seems misused.
    – Eleshar
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 21:23
  • 2
    @Eleshar: I'm pretty sure I have seen the rarity definition used as far back as at least Comrie (1976) ... I think it is one of the most commonly cited facets of markedness actually. Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 8:15

There is a book edited by B. Samuels entitled Beyond markedness in formal phonology which addresses the question. Basically, this is a case where the term is taken to be primary, and the referent is taken to be "open to discovery" – which is a nice way to say that it doesn't have a fixed meaning, and depending on school of thought, it refers to unrelated facts. Trubetzkoy's imported the concept of a "mark" into linguistics, and used it to refer to a distinguishing property that a linguistic unit has. In phonology, it was intimately tied to privative features, where a voiced consonant might "have the mark" and voiceless ones might lack it. Subsequent developments retained the term but radically altered what it was about. This was especially necessary when Trubetzkoy's privative analysis was replaced with Jakobsonian binary features, whereby all oppositions become equipollent. The nature of being "marked" then had to change, and it changed in the direction of being "more basic" versus "less basic", with a presumed acquisitional bias in favor of the "more basic" value.

Greenberg explicitly tied the notion of "marked" with frequency of occurrence, and Chomsky and Halle in SPE followed up on this assumption by creating a formal theory of "markedness" whereby rules were simpler to express if they produced unmarked results – consequently, the thinking was, unmarked outputs will be more frequent. Generally speaking, since that time the term has been taken to mean "happens most often", and the puzzle then is, what is the nature of the fact that causes something to be more frequent (i.e. "unmarked"). SPE held that it was a list of context-sensitive specifications that come "for free". More recently, "markedness" has been taken in OT to mean "a configuration that is to be avoided".

It is some note, IMO, that there is negligible interaction between the concept of markedness in phonology, and its use in semantics.


Perhaps markedness is best explained in terms of surprisal. Frequency alone is not a very good estimator for surprisal because it ignores all kind of context and uses a unigram language model. More refined language models and external knowledge (e.g., script knowledge) give more precise number for surprisal. Surprisal is correlated to processing difficulty as psycholinguistic studies show.

So, in the terms of the wikipedia article in the quoted version, "dominant" translates to "least surprising" or "having the lowest surprisal".

  • 2
    I think surprisal is best called surprisal instead of defining markedness in terms of surprisal and adding another meaning to the already overloaded (see John Cowan's answer) term, tbh. While surprisal can be measured differently depending on your probabilistic model, at least we all agree on the basic formula for it, up to the base of the logarithm. Calling it anything else seems to only obfuscate terminology... Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 8:20

Marked and unmarked terms are frequently getting used in binary oppositions. It means a term isn't equal in its weight, but the one (unmarked) is neutral or more positive in contrast to the opposite term. As Geoffery leech observes, where there's a contrast between two or more terms, tenses or cases, one among them is marked if it has some extra 'affix' in contrast to the unmarked one which doesn't contain any marker. for instance, the cat is an unmarked and neutral term while cats are marked with a suffix -s, similarly actor may be an unmarked term while the actress is a marked term with an affix -ess, also polite may be a positive term in contrast to its negative term 'impolite'. generally, the plural of nouns in English is marked term (books) as compared to the singular (book) for more information read this article https://www.ta3alem-online.com/2020/02/marked-and-unmarked-terms.html

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