What Is Markedness in Language?

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

As Geoffrey Leech observed, "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." For example, the root verb "walk" is unmarked, and the past-tense of the verb is "walked," which is marked by having the suffix -ed attached to it to indicate that it's past tense (also called inflection). Words can also be marked to show their gender.

Different Kinds of Markings on Words

Root words take on affixes, such as suffixes and prefixes, and are thus this way "marked"—there's additional meaning attached to the word just by putting the affix onto the root or base word. For example: 

Plurality: Plurals are made by adding the suffixes -s or -es onto nouns or changing the spelling, such as in family -> families.

Tense: Different tenses are shown through suffixes such as -ed or -d to put a root word in the past, as illustrated above. 

Case: Nouns show possessive case with the addition of an 's or an apostrophe (depending on the style guide followed), as in Lincoln's or Jesus'. 

Gender: If a word shows you the gender of the animal, for example, it's marked. Compare lion with lioness or stallion with mare. Three of the four words in the preceding sentence are considered marked, even though only one has an affix (in this case, -ess, applied to some words to make them the female version).

As language becomes more gender neutral, some terms are dropping out of use, such as policewoman being replaced by police officer or stewardess being replaced with flight attendant.

Polarity: You can show the opposites of some words by marking them with a prefix. Examine, for example, the difference between consistent and inconsistent—or even the topic of this article, words that are marked or unmarked. The pairs have a marked and an unmarked term; just look for the prefix in these examples.

Superlatives: Compare adjectives old, older, and oldest. The marked versions are the superlative older and oldest because they have a suffix. They are less neutral than the term old, which can be completely neutral in the asking of someone's age, to wit, "How old are you?"

The Theory and Its Fields of Study

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, though it's not a crystal-clear science in that field of study, as author Paul V. De Lacy explains:  

"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."

Sources

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