According to the definition of markedness, unmarked terms can be consider the "norm". So if there is something more "normal" about using unmarked terms, why would a language have marked terms at all?

Are they thought to occur by chance in a language? Or is there a pattern, a constraint, or a logical explanation to their existence?

  • Maybe "chance" is not completely opposing to "logical explanation" for the existence of marked terms, considering the different aspects of the problem. – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 14:14
  • Possibly there are two questions merged here. "Why do they occur", and "how do they come up" – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 14:21

Usually a marked term has an unmarked opposite, such as "happy" (unmarked) vs. "unhappy" (marked), "old" (unmarked) vs. "young" (marked) and "big" (unmarked) vs. "little" (marked). So you don't generally have unmarked and marked terms meaning exactly the same thing, from what I can tell.

For male/female distinctions (at least in English), unaffixed male terms are often unmarked, while affixed female terms are often marked, as can be see from "man"/"woman" and "lion"/"lioness" distinction, where "man" and "lion" are much more broad and dominant terms than "woman" and "lioness", which are quite specific. Furthermore, singular forms are usually unmarked, while plural forms are often marked.

So usually, marked terms are not simply marked versions of unmarked terms, they have different meanings even when not considering their markedness.

It has been theorised that markedness reduces cognitive complexity.

  • in the case of "old x young", why do you say "young" is marked? marked and unmarked don't mean the same thing, they are opposed, but a more specific kind of opposition. You can oppose lions x wolves, and lion x lioness. – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 13:38
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    Because I ask "How old are you?", not "How young are you?". I talk about how old someone is, not how young they are, unless I'm specifically talking about their youth rather than their age, i.e. I'm trying to emphasise them being young. See what I mean? – Miles Rout Jun 19 '12 at 13:43
  • I wonder if "unhappy" really qualifies as a marked term, as there's the opposition happy x sad. To me, "unhappy" sounds to be close to a rethorical figure, like 'not happy' in the following situation: A: are you sad?, B: no, but I'm not happy. – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 13:43
  • yes, I see your point in the 'age' situation. – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 13:45
  • Thanks @Miles Rout for these explanations. Could you provide links or references about your last sentence "It has been theorised that markedness reduces cognitive complexity."? – gui11aume Jun 19 '12 at 15:13

the mark will make the term more specific. Similar to what occurs in biology where you have gender, species and variation of species (Vitis vinifera is "grape" but you may diferentiate grape as "cabernet", "merlot", if you are a specialist, specialty means, this detail is meaningful to you...). A biologist talking about reproduction in a group of animals will probably be in need to define how many 'he'-animals are there and how many 'she'-animals, for this information is meaningful to the context. If gender is not important in some context, there's no need for gender opposition. The unmarked term is more extense, more abstract and can be used in more cases. It doesn't mean it is "better", it depends on what information is important in a certain situation.

  • Very nice comparison with the biology. This helped me a lot understand the concept. – gui11aume Jun 19 '12 at 15:11

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