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What Is Markedness?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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In linguistics, markedness is a phenomenon that applies to a relationship between two or more words. Experts speak of this as an asymmetry that helps linguists to understand how various languages are used. This evaluation of words and phrases applies to both grammatical and semantic differences, and also involves some evaluation of phonology of words.

Many of the most basic examples of markedness involve some opposite words that mirror each other in specific ways. For example, a set of words where one or the other consists of a prefixed form of its companion can be said to illustrate markedness. A common example is the set of words “happy” and “unhappy.” In this example, the word “unhappy” is said to be marked by its prefix that establishes it as the opposite of the word “happy.” It’s interesting to compare another set of words, “happy” and “sad,” where no marking phenomena is observed because neither of these are defined by their opposites.

In the above example, the prefix “un” marks the word. Other prefixes used to mark words include “dis-,” “pre-,” and “ir-.” All of these can set up similar examples where the opposite form of a word gets the prefix.

Other forms of markedness involve a pair of words where one of the words is more commonly spoken than another. A set of opposites with one formal term and one slang term could be seen as a case of markedness. Another good example of this principle is in gendered words where one gender may be the basic form of the word, and addressing the other gender adds a suffix. For example, in the set of words “poet” and “poetess,” the word “poetess,” which refers to the female, is marked by the suffix “–ess.”

Some experts also explain markedness this way; they say the phenomena indicates a choice of meaning. Observing which one of a pair of opposite words is most used shows linguists how humans value the two single words in the pair. Where one is favored, this can reveal a lot about the anthropology of a language group as well is its psychological use of semantics. Some experts suggest that by evaluating markedness, researchers can dig up a lot of the underlying social conditioning of a society, examining what is considered “normal” within that society, and what is considered abnormal.

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