Markedness (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In many areas of language study, markedness is a state in which one linguistic element is more distinctively identified (or marked) than another (unmarked) element.

As Geoffrey Leech observes, "Where there is a contrast between two or more members of a category such as a number, case, or tense, one of them is called 'marked' if it contains some extra affix, as opposed to the 'unmarked' member which does not" (see below).

The terms marked and unmarked were introduced by Nikolai Trubetzkoy in his 1931 article on "Die phonologischen Systeme." However, Trubetzkoy's conception of markedness applied exclusively to phonology.

See Examples and Observations below.

Examples and Observations:

  • "For example, cat is unmarked, while its plural cats is marked by the suffix -s. Likewise, lion is unmarked, while the female lioness is marked by the suffix -ess, and consistent is unmarked in comparison with its negative inconsistent. The active sentence The police arrested Susie is unmarked with respect to its passive counterpart Susie was arrested by the police, which contains more material."
  • Grammatical Markedness and Gender Markedness
    - "For example, the regular plural (such as tables) of a noun is the marked form in comparison with the singular (table) because it has an extra affix, the -s (or -es) plural inflection. In a similar way, the ordinary form of an adjective such as old is unmarked in contrast to the comparative and superlative forms, older and oldest. . . . Generally, the unmarked form is the more frequent option and also the one that has the most neutral meaning."
  • From Pole to Pole
    "The principle of markedness developed in the last half-century attempts to give organization to the polarities that constitute language. Conceived in the Prague School of linguistic theories of Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy, the notion of markedness posits that the terms of polar oppositions at any level of language are not mere opposites, but rather that they show an evaluative nonequivalence that is imposed on all oppositions."
  • Semantic Markedness
    "Markedness also applies in semantics, where features used in the componential analysis can be described in this way. Thus, the horse is unmarked for sex, whereas stallion and mare are so marked. This type of marking is semantic marking. Other words exhibit formal marking (e.g. host versus hostess (marked for 'female'), widow versus widower (marked for 'male')). In a neutral context, the unmarked term in a pair is used. Thus of the pair old versus young, old is the unmarked term (e.g. How old is the baby?)."
  • Phonological Markedness
    - "A great deal of skepticism about markedness and the variation in what is considered unmarked seems to be due to three apparent problems: (a) some markedness diagnostics do not work all the time; (b) marked elements are favoured for some phenomena, and (c) markedness distinctions can be ignored."
  • Typological Markedness
    "The essential notion behind typological markedness is the fact of asymmetrical or unequal grammatical properties of otherwise equal linguistic elements: inflections, words in word classes and even paradigms of syntactic constructions. Typological markedness is a network of apparent causal relationships among a subtype of cross-linguistic asymmetries, all of which have to do with how function is encoded into grammatical form. The general theme of asymmetry also suggests a link to asymmetrical patterns in word order and phonology, which differ from typological markedness in significant ways..."


    R.L. Trask, Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000

    Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006

    Edwin L. Battistella, Markedness: The Evaluative Superstructure of Language. SUNY Press, 1990

    Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994

    Paul V. De Lacy, Markedness: Reduction And Preservation in Phonology. Cambridge University Press, 2006

    William Croft, Typology and Universals, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003