In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Markedness

  • Introduction
  • Short Surveys in Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Handbooks
  • Foundational Works
  • Development in European Structuralism
  • Development in America
  • Historical Reconstructions

Linguistics Markedness
Livio Gaeta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0153


Markedness is a central concept in the study of linguistics in the 20th and 21st centuries, and it can be traced back to the early developments of structuralist phonological theory. However, during the course of the 20th century it has acquired so many different meanings and uses that its current usage is still much debated and not clearly defined. In its original substance, markedness makes reference to the phoneme as a bundle of distinctive features, which can be positively or negatively specified (“marked”) for a certain value. If two phonemes are distinguished by one single feature, it can be assumed that one member of the pair is unmarked for the given feature while the other is marked. In other words, they stand in a privative binary opposition. Thus, the property of being marked amounts to being the property of being marker-carrier, as in the classical formulation suggested by the Russian prince N. S. Trubetzkoy, who first expressed the theory of markedness. Accordingly, if we take the two phonemes /t/ and /d/ whose distinguishing feature is voice, which of them should we assume to be marked (or in the German original: merkmaltragend) “marker-carrier”? The answer depends ultimately on what we think to be the relation between our representation and the external world. If we consider that voice is a property added to the realization of an obstruent, then /d/ is marked. In other words, we have in this example the apparently parallel occurrence of the property of carrying a marker and the cognitive complexity of the sound. Unfortunately, there are much thornier cases where the answer ultimately depends on the representation adopted. Moreover, markedness was extended to other cases in which no privative opposition was present, intending that a certain state of affairs must be considered as more marked than another on the basis of our general expectations regarding its possibility of occurring. In this regard, the principal correlates of (or criteria for) markedness have been taken to consist in frequency, conceptual complexity, structural complexity, and distribution. However, none of these criteria can be considered ideal for establishing markedness. Moreover, they depict markedness as basically a gradual or scalar phenomenon, in which more marked cases occur close to less marked ones with different (and not always converging) criteria. For all these reasons, a general criticism has been raised against the concept of markedness, which can be summarized as the “chicken-egg” question: Is markedness a primitive notion that accounts for the given asymmetry observed? Or is the asymmetry observed to be explained as due to further independent reasons that are only superficially summarized by the label “markedness”? After eight decades of discussion, the picture is still unclear, and radically opposed meanings are represented with good arguments.

Short Surveys in Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Handbooks

As markedness refers to any level of linguistic analysis, one can distinguish surveys of a general nature: for example, Bybee 2011, Kean 1992, Ludwig 2000 (for German readers) and Waugh and Lafford 2000 and Waugh and Lafford 2006 from more specific surveys relating respectively to phonology such as Archangeli 1992, Hume 2011, Rice 2007, Steriade 1995, and to second language acquisition such as Callies 2013.

  • Archangeli, D. B. 1992. Markedness in phonology. In International encyclopedia of linguistics. Vol. 2. Edited by W. J. Frawley, 391–393. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise introduction into the main issues of markedness, mainly focusing on phonology.

  • Bybee, J. 2011. Markedness: Iconicity, economy, and frequency. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology. Edited by J. -J. Song, 131–147. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise and exhaustive survey of the main issues relating to markedness.

  • Callies, M. 2013. Markedness. In The Routledge encyclopedia of second language acquisition. Edited by P. Robinson, 406–409. London and New York: Routledge.

    A survey of the role played by markedness in second language acquisition studies.

  • Hume, E. 2011. Markedness. In The Blackwell companion to phonology. Vol. 1. Edited by M. van Oostendorp, 79–106. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A concise and exhaustive survey of the main aspects of markedness as it has been commonly understood in phonological theory and practice.

  • Kean, M. -L. 1992. Markedness. In International encyclopedia of linguistics. Vol. 2. Edited by W. Bright, 390–391. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A survey of markedness with special attention to its employment in generative linguistics.

  • Ludwig, R. 2000. Markiertheit. In Language typology and language universals: An international handbook/Sprachtypologie und sprachliche Universalien: Ein internationales Handbuch. Vol. 1. Edited by M. Haspelmath, E. König, W. Oesterreicher, and W. Raible, 400–419. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    A comprehensive German-language survey of markedness.

  • Rice, K. 2007. Markedness in phonology. In The Cambridge handbook of phonology. Edited by P. de Lacy, 79–97. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486371.005

    A survey of markedness theory with special attention to the framework of optimality theory.

  • Steriade, D. 1995. Underspecification and markedness. In The handbook of phonological theory. Edited by J. Goldsmith, 114–174. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

    A general treatment of markedness from the point of view of autosegmental phonology, which features markedness interpreted as underspecification.

  • Waugh, L. R., and B. A. Lafford. 2000. Markedness. In Morphologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Flexion und Wortbildung. Vol. 1. Edited by G. Booij, Ch. Lehmann, and J. Mugdan, 272–281. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    In spite of its appearance in a reference work for morphology, the chapter provides a complete survey of markedness theory at all linguistic levels.

  • Waugh, L. R., and B. A. Lafford. 2006. Markedness. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by K. Brown, 491–498. Boston: Elsevier.

    A complete survey of markedness theory involving any level of linguistic analysis.

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