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 Jun 19 '12 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 Jun 19 '12 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? – Otavio Macedo Jun 19 '12 at 14:01
  • "dominant" is probably a bad word choice in that WP article. Hmm. More frequent? More general? – kaleissin Jun 19 '12 at 14:05
  • @Otavio Macedo after some fumbling I put it back in this question with slight modification. – gui11aume Jun 19 '12 at 14:27

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.

  • 4
    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. – Mark Beadles Jun 19 '12 at 13:52
  • 2
    all done and ready to read! – Miles Rout Jun 19 '12 at 13:59
  • 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 Dec 31 '13 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. – Miles Rout Jan 22 '15 at 3:12
  • (20 years young is also a poetic usage of course) – Miles Rout Sep 29 '17 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.
  • 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 Dec 2 '18 at 21:23

There is a forthcoming volume 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.

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