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Against markedness (and what to replace it with)



This paper first provides an overview of the various senses in which the terms ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ have been used in 20th-century linguistics. Twelve different senses, related only by family resemblances, are distinguished, grouped into four larger classes: markedness as complexity, as difficulty, as abnormality, and as a multidimensional correlation. In the second part of the paper, it is argued that the term ‘markedness’ is superfluous, because some of the concepts that it denotes are not helpful, and others are better expressed by more straightforward, less ambiguous terms. In a great many cases, frequency asymmetries can be shown to lead to a direct explanation of observed structural asymmetries, and in other cases additional concrete, substantive factors such as phonetic difficulty and pragmatic inferences can replace reference to an abstract notion of ‘markedness’.


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Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany. E-mail:


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Versions of this paper were presented at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Stanford University, the University of Stockholm, and The Free University of Berlin. I am grateful to the audiences at those occasions. Further useful comments were provided by Juliette Blevins, Grev Corbett, Michael Cysouw, and Anette Rosenbach. I am grateful to everyone who contributed to improving this paper, including two JL referees.


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Against markedness (and what to replace it with)



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