markedness (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Dutch linguist Aert Kuipers (1970) on the nature of markedness.


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 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. Also see:


Examples and Observations:

  • "[T]he unmarked form is the 'ordinary' or 'basic' form, while the . . . marked form differs from the first in containing extra material or in being confined to special contexts.

    "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."
    (R.L. Trask, Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000)
  • 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."
    (Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

      - "The term 'marked' is a staple of linguistic theory. It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own. The unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that goes without saying—what you think of when you're not thinking anything special.

    "The unmarked tense of verbs in English is the present—for example, visit. To indicate past, you mark the verb by adding ed to yield visited. For future, you add a word: will visit. Nouns are presumed to be singular until marked for plural, typically by adding s or es, so visit becomes visits and dish becomes dishes.

    "The unmarked forms of most English words also convey 'male.' Being male is the unmarked case. Endings like ess and ette mark words as 'female.' Unfortunately, they also tend to mark them for frivolousness."

    (Deborah Tannen, "Marked Women, Unmarked Men." The New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1993)

  • 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.

    "This evaluative superstructure imposed by the linguistic code takes the form of an implicit hierarchization of polar terms such that one term of an opposition is simpler and more general than its opposite. In technical parlance, the term markedness refers to the relationship between the two poles of an opposition; the terms marked and unmarked refer to the evaluation of the poles; the simpler more general pole is the unmarked term of the opposition while the more complex and focused pole is the marked term."
    (Edwin L. Battistella, Markedness: The Evaluative Superstructure of Language. SUNY Press, 1990)
  • Semantic Markedness
    "Markedness also applies in semantics, where features used in componential analysis can be described in this way. Thus, 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?)."
    (Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994)
  • 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."
    (Paul V. De Lacy, Markedness: Reduction And Preservation in Phonology. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

    - "One of the major problems for markedness theory is that when one starts studying the phonologies of languages, it becomes evident that although markedness effects are evident, most, if not all, phonological phenomena display properties that are not accountable for in terms of phonological universals and are instead fully idiosyncratic. These idiosyncratic aspects of the phonologies of languages are brought about by historical changes and preserved by memorization. This fact makes it clear that the synchronic phonology of a particular language cannot be reduced to a complex interaction of substantive universals as proposed in OT [Optimality Theory]."
    (Andrea Calabrese, Markedness and Economy in a Derivational Model of Phonology. Mouton de Gruyter, 2005)
  • 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 . . ..

    "Typological markedness is a universal property of a conceptual category, not a language-particular property of a language-particular grammatical category as it is in Prague School markedness."
    (William Croft, Typology and Universals, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)