Marked and Unmarked Terms in the English Language


In binary oppositions:

Marked and unmarked terms are frequently being used in binary oppositions. It means that a term is not equal in its weight, but the one (unmarked) is neutral or more positive in contrast to the other term. As Geoffery leech observes, where there is a contrast between two or more terms, tenses or cases, one of them is marked if it have some extra ‘affix’ in contrast to the unmarked one which does not contain any marker. For example the cat is an unmarked and neutral term while cats is marked with a suffix -s, similarly actor is an unmarked term while actress is a marked term with an affix -ess, also polite is a positive term in contrast to its negative term ‘impolite’. In general the plural of nouns in English language are marked term (books) in comparison to the singular (book). In French language the feminine is generally marked and the masculine is unmarked term for instance petit in contrast to petite; however, in English if sex is marked it is done lexically.i.e. by giving special words to one sex and none for the other one, for example word duck is a female term which is unmarked while maleness is marked by drake which is absent in duck and this word gives services for the whole specie. Moreover in the pronouns opposite marking is being observed, that is male as an unmarked term and female term as marked one. For example,

One in HIS senses would not do a thing like that (unmarked)

One in HER senses would not do a thing like that (marked by femaleness)

It is the male sex who is marked because the first statement could refer to either gender, but the second one will specify it for femaleness.

In polar oppositions:

The same kind of marked/unmarked distinction is observed in polar oppositions as well (having two poles) good/bad, rich/poor, day/night, low/high, short/long and we prefer to measure things by the mean of length rather than the shortness. We would rather ask how long this cloth, than how short this cloth is, or how high this building is instead of how low this building is. Because the former will give a neutral expression which mean it could be long or short, while in latter we are left with only one possibility of being short. It does not only rely on the scale of measurement but can also be used in such cases,

How WELL does she speak French? Very poorly

How BADLY does she speak French? Like a native

The first statement is neutral and different from the second one which is marked in this context thus the answer is completely different.

Markedness can be defined as the relationship between the form and meaning. If there is a contrast of two different forms on a single dimension the unmarked one would be neutral one and could be applied on the whole dimension rather than a specific aspect of it. It could be argued that this phenomenon is due the negative-positive inherent to the semantic opposition itself. Normally the unmarked one is considered positive while the marked one is taken a negative term for instance, happy/unhappy, complete/incomplete, stable/unstable; however, in some cases there is an invisible element of negation, like it is easy to define dead by not alive than alive by not dead.

Polyyanna hypothesis:

The detailed explanation of markedness is given on the basis of psychological or experiential ground for which some psycholinguists have given a so called hypothesis called “Pollyanna hypothesis” according to which people tend to think more positively towards life and pay more heed to brighter side of life which provides an argument for associating good with ‘unmarked’ terms and bad with ‘marked’ suffixes and prefixes.

In relative opposition:

There is also a chance of bias in relative oppositions but it is better to call this ‘dominance’ instead of ‘markedness’ for instance in parent/child, front/behind, right/wrong the first term seems to be more dominant than the other one, thus we prefer to place the dominant term before (parent-child) or maybe giving one name to both terms using dominant one (ownership). Markedness and dominance seems to have variation in strength but it deeply depends upon the psychological basis. There is no logical significance in giving symbols to these terms of oppositions. The distinction between ‘dead’ and ‘alive could be given equal logical explanation as +dead/-dead as by -live/+dead because both of these are logically equivalent. This shows that the unmarked term has gained the discrimination of + and upward arrow while the dominant term of a opposition has gained the right arrow.

But the distinguishing term for the marked term is never omitted and the neutralization of the opposition is still indicated (oparent, oright, ogood etc)

Ruth Kempson rule:

To account for lexical ambiguities due to markedness Ruth has given a rule. For this rule we can take dog and bitch as an example.

If a) there are two words W1 and W2 having meanings m1 and m2, and m1 differs from m2 only in having an extra feature -X

And if b) there is no word like W3 with meaning m3 and m2 differs m3 in having an extra feature of +X

It means that m3 is an additional meaning of W1. (m2 and m3 are co-hyponyms of m3 and thus W1 is an unmarked term). This rule accounts for all the ambiguities having first term as more general containing an extra feature while the second one as more specific one. There is also an explanation for other type of ambiguities, such as it is a tautology to say that a calf is a young cow, but on the other hand it is not the tautology to say that this is a cow not a calf. This is how ambiguity through same words is created. There can also be some of the hierarchical structures for the same word.