Published March 3, 2003 | Version v1
Presentation Open

Against iconicity and markedness: Handout of a talk presented at Stanford University

  • 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Abstract: The notions of iconicity and markedness have played important roles in a diverse range of theoretical approaches, and as a result, the terms have become multiply polysemous, in a way that is not often acknowledged by theoretical linguists. While iconicity has most often been appealed to by functionalists, the term markedness is employed very widely.

         In this talk, I argue that the two most commonly invoked kinds of iconicity (iconicity as correspondence of complexity/markedness, e.g. Givón 1995, Aissen 2003, and iconicity of cohesion, e.g. Haiman 1983) are unnecessary, because where they make right predictions, these predictions also follow from the predictions made by the preference for usage economy. But in many cases, these iconicity principles make wrong predictions while economy makes right predictions, so that it is clear that economy should replace iconicity.

         For the term "markedness", I distinguish seven different senses, which are related by family resemblances: markedness (i) as overt coding, (ii) as specification for a feature (e.g. Trubetzkoy 1939), (iii) as restricted cross-linguistic distribution, (iv) as a cluster of correlating properties of meaningful categories ("typological markedness", Greenberg 1966), (v) as dispreference for difficult structures ("unnaturalness", Wurzel 1998), (vi) as rarity or unexpectedness, (vii) as deviation from the default parameter setting. I argue that apart from (i), none of these notions is required for an explanatory approach to the structure of human languages. To replace them, all that is needed are general processing preferences (economy, distinctiveness, parsability) as well as general conceptual-pragmatic preferences which give rise to frequency asymmetries. Finally, I examine the use of the term "markedness" in the recent optimality-theoretic literature (e.g. Aissen 1999, Bermúdez-Otero & Börjars 2003+), and I conclude that OT approaches simply adopt earlier observations about "typological markedness" and "unnaturalness", without offering a genuinely new perspective.




Aissen, Judith. 1999. "Markedness and subject choice in Optimality Theory." Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 17: 673-711.

Aissen, Judith. 2003. "Differential object marking: Iconicity vs. economy." To appear in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory

Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo & Börjars, Kersti. 2003+. "Markedness in phonology and in syntax: the problem of grounding." To appear in: Honeybone, Patrick & Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (eds.), Linguistic knowledge: perspectives from phonology and form syntax. (Special issue of Lingua)

Givón, T. 1995. "Markedness as meta-iconicity: distributional and cognitive correlates of syntactic structure." In: Functionalism and grammar. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 25-69.

Greenberg, Joseph. 1966. Language universals, with special reference to feature hierarchies. (Janua Linguarum, Series Minor, 59.) The Hague: Mouton.

Haiman, John. 1983. "Iconic and economic motivation." Language 59: 781-819.

Trubetzkoy, Nikolaj. 1939. Grundzüge der Phonologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Wurzel, Wolfgang Ullrich. 1998. “On markedness.” Theoretical Linguistics 24.1: 53-71.



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