Markedness Theories

A Basis for the Expression of Emotions in Language

Term Paper, 2010

18 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Markedness
2.1. The Concept in General
2.2. Comrie’s Comments
2.3. The Twelve Senses
2.4. How to Diagnose Markedness
2.5. Scale of Markedness
2.6. Markedness as Expectation
2.7. Markedness Assimilation

3. Emotions in Language
3.1. Stance
3.2. Rules of Emotionality
3.3. Expressing Emotions
3.4. Emotion Analysis

4. Markedness in Emotional Language
4.1. The Emotions
4.2. Markedness of the Emotional Terms

5. Conclusion

Works Cited


1. Introduction

The term markedness has been used for various concepts in linguistics for a long time in spite of its controversial usage. The discourse on emotions or emotional language from a linguistic point of view has also been controversial and, as opposed to markedness theories, has not had a long tradition. When conducting research for this topic I noticed that there is little material that links markedness theory to emotional language. This paper is an attempt to link the two concepts and to show that markedness is an indicator for the intensity of emotions.

In order to analyse the role that markedness plays in expressing emotions, I will first introduce the concept of markedness in general and then present some of the theories that I consider relevant for linking markedness with emotions. The most important scholars that I will refer to and base my research on are Bernard Comrie, who wrote a paper on markedness in the 1990s, Martin Haspelmath, who published a research article against markedness in 2006, Edwin L. Battistella, who wrote a whole book on markedness two decades ago and Elizabeth Hume, who based her markedness understanding on the expectation of the language user rather than on the behaviour of the language itself in a recent paper.

Next, I will present some of the findings in linguistic studies on emotions to date which will be based on publications by Reinhard Fiehler and Zoltán Kövecses, both of which focused on the conceptualisation of emotions in language.

Following the introduction of the concept of markedness and the study of emotions, I will apply some of the theories to two sample dialogues in order to determine the relationship between the two concepts. I will also try to generalise my findings so as to suggest concrete ideas about the influence that markedness has on the expression of emotions.

Finally, I will summarise my findings and suggest to what extent further research in this domain could offer new insights in linguistic studies.

2. Markedness

2.1. The Concept in General

The underlying concept of all uses of markedness is that one feature of a linguistic form is more neutral than another. The less neutral form is regarded as marked whereas the other form is called ‘unmarked’. This concept has been discussed for a long time, but the term markedness was originally introduced by linguists of the Prague School at the beginning of the 20th century, who used it to explain phonological frequency differences. (Trask 2007: 163)

2.2. Comrie’s Comments

In his paper on markedness Comrie examines several aspects of markedness. He questions whether markedness is a valid notion and how markedness values can be determined (1996: 1). As this paper deals with the relationship of the concept of markedness with emotional language, I will assume markedness to be a valid notion. As to the question how markedness values can be determined, Battistella will be quoted further on in this paper with his six criteria for diagnosing markedness.

Further on, Comrie points out the difference between language internal markedness and cross-linguistic markedness (1996: 1). The difference between these two aspects is that language internal markedness, e.g. the word cat in English is less marked than the word tom cat or feline, does not mean that cross-linguistically the same markedness structure appears. In this example it does match with the markedness of the German word Katze (cat) in comparison to Kater (tom cat) or Kätzin (feline) but the difference between language internal markedness and cross-linguistic markedness should have become clear. Battistella uses a different set of words to describe the difference between these two research methods, which is language dependent/particular markedness versus independent markedness (1990: 6). This paper will focus mainly on particular or language internal markedness in the English language and will neglect the aspect of independent or cross- linguistic markedness.

Another important feature of markedness that Comrie points out is its context- sensitivity (1996: 2), which means that if a feature is marked in one language context, it is not necessarily marked in another context. This relates to the concept of what Battistella calls markedness assimilation, which will be referred to in section 2.g) of the paper at hand.

Comrie presents another major difference in markedness concepts, which is the distinction between overt marking and systemic marking (1996: 2). Systemic marking is the typical markedness notion as was described above. Overt marking is “the presence vs. the absence of an overt mark” and it “can serve as a criterion for systemic markedness”(Comrie 1996: 2). Instead of going into more detail about these general concepts, Martin Haspelmath’s (2006) distinctions are more precise.

2.3. The Twelve Senses

In his paper Against markedness, Haspelmath splits up markedness into twelve different senses (2006: 3) before he tries to dismiss the usage of the term entirely. The first three senses are markedness as a specification for a phonological distinction, for a semantic distinction and as overt coding. For these three senses he uses the umbrella term ‘markedness as complexity’. Markedness as complexity describes markedness in the way that it is mainly used in linguistics. Less used concepts follow under the heading of ‘markedness as difficulty’ that splits up into phonetic, morphological and conceptual difficulties. Further senses are markedness as rarity in texts and in the world, as cross- linguistic rarity, as restricted distribution and as a deviation from a default parameter setting. Haspelmath groups these five senses with the heading ‘markedness as abnormality’. The last sense that he attributes to markedness is a multidimensional correlation. (2006: 3, Table 1) It is still to be proven whether or not such a precise distinction between markedness categories is of much use as most of these categories seem to overlap in more than one feature. With regard to emotional language, the focus will be, besides a reference to markedness as a rarity in texts and in the world, on markedness as a specification for a semantic distinction, consequently this is what the next paragraph will deal with.

An example for semantic markedness is the word-pair dog and bitch, as Comrie exemplifies (1996: 5). A dog denotes the animal species and includes female and male dogs. The term bitch only denotes a female dog. As the word dog can be used more universally than the word bitch, it is unmarked in comparison to bitch, which is consequently marked. This is also a good example to refer back to the fact that words are only marked in respect to certain feature values. Just because the word bitch is marked in reference to the word dog, it does not mean that the word itself is a marked word. If bitch, for example, is contrasted with feline then it might be the unmarked word. To show whether this is the case, corpus research would have to be done and frequency of usage could be used in order to determine which of the two words is unmarked in relation to the other one.

2.4. How to Diagnose Markedness

When defining markedness in respect to emotional language further on in this paper, Battistella’s six criteria for diagnosing markedness will be of help: The unmarked term/category/feature

1. is semantically indeterminate.
2. frequently serves as the prototype or best example of an opposition.
3. has a greater freedom of use.
4. sometimes shows a larger number of subcategorical distinctions.
5. is often formally simpler.
6. is optimally cross-linguistic. (1990: 65f)

These criteria are not absolute and not all of them will be applied in this paper, but they might be a good starting point for determining markedness and an answer to the issue that Comrie brings up, when questioning “how markedness values are to be determined.” (1996: 1)

2.5. Scale of Markedness

Interestingly enough, Martin Haspelmath had written a preface for Joseph Greenberg’s book Language Universals the year before his essay Against markedness was published, in which he wrote about markedness in a neutral fashion without demanding the abolition of the concept. In this preface he points out that markedness is not an absolute binary opposition but that there is a scale of markedness from most marked via less marked to least marked. He also highlights that markedness is mainly a quantitative concept, as frequency is its most important indicator. (2005, xv)

Good examples for both of these claims are the words happy, joyful and auspicious. When searching these in the spoken section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies 2008; hereafter: COCA), happy has a frequency of 172.15, joyful of 2.11 and auspicious of 0.33 per million words. This means that for describing happiness, happy clearly is the least marked word of the three as can be seen from the frequency of usage. This claim is also justified because happy is the most general and least specific term. On the markedness scale, joyful is much more marked than happy, but still less marked than auspicious. Here again, it can be seen that markedness is an issue of relation. In the relationship of joyful and auspicious, joyful is the unmarked term. If happy is added to the list, then we get a scale of markedness of these terms in relation to each other.

2.6. Markedness as Expectation

Elizabeth Hume describes markedness in a different way than other linguists do. According to her, it is not the language that behaves in a certain way, but the language user who has certain expectations. If a language user expects a word to be used, then it is likely that it will be used because it often occurs in certain contexts. In other words, the expectation of the language user describes the probability of the word in question being used. Vice versa, if a word occurs more frequently than others, it is unmarked and therefore expected. (Hume 2008: 3ff) Referring back to the example of happy, joyful and auspicious, this clearly makes sense. If somebody is told good news, then he or she is expected to say ‘I am so happy’ rather than saying ‘I am so joyful’. He will also be more likely to use this choice of words as it is the one that occurs more frequently than the others and is therefore unmarked.

2.7. Markedness Assimilation

Another noteworthy characteristic of the concept of markedness is the principle of markedness assimilation. This principle suggests that marked elements mainly occur in marked contexts, whereas unmarked elements are more likely to occur in unmarked contexts. (Battistella 1990: 7) The word bitch from an earlier example can be used again to explain this. In an article about breeding dogs, bitch is much more likely to occur than in an article about dogs in general. Clearly, the article about breeding is more marked than the article about dogs in general and therefore the marked word is more likely to occur in the marked context.

3. Emotions in Language

3.1. Stance

“In addition to communicating propositional content, speakers and writers commonly express personal feelings, attitudes, value judgements, or assessments; that is, they express a ‘stance’” (Biber 1999: 966). The fact that speakers usually express an opinion when talking to each other is commonly known but not always reflected upon. If a wife says to her husband ‘I thought you said you were coming home last night,’ then this sentence does not only deal with the proposition that he said he was going to come home the night before in a content-wise manner, but also expresses a stance by letting him know that she does not think it okay of him to stay out all night. In general, comprehending the stance in communication happens automatically if all communication participants have the same level of knowledge about a topic or know each other well enough. If a participant does not understand the stance, this can lead to problems in communication. In the previous example this could be the husband replying by saying ‘I can’t remember saying that, we just had a great night out,’ instead of acknowledging his wife’s feelings and apologizing.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Markedness Theories
A Basis for the Expression of Emotions in Language
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
Emotions in Language
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markedness, theories, basis, expression, emotions, language
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Lisa Jensen (Author), 2010, Markedness Theories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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