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Jan 27 / Steve Runge

Introduction to markedness

One of my stated projects for this year is do an extended study of the historical present in the Greek New Testament. This post will start the process of providing background concepts for this project. One of the most helpful concepts that I have utilized in my research has been the concept of markedness. This term has been thrown about quite a bit in NT studies, often without much in the way of definition.

Markedness is an organizational framework for taking a complex set of data and organizing it into meaningful groupings to facilitate description of the members. The organization is accomplished by taking the most simple, basic member of the set, and using it as the canon against which the other members are contrasted. The most basic member is referred to as the default. The other members of the set are then described by how each differs from the default and from the other members. The default option is the one used when, to paraphrase the Hallmark commercial, “you do not care enough to send the very best.” In other words, when there is nothing special that one wants to signal as present, the default is the natural choice. For this reason, the default is generally the most frequently occurring member of the set. It does not signal or mark the presence of any special feature. In this way the default is also called the unmarked option.

This system that I have described is an asymmetrical approach to markedness, where each different member of the set marks the presence of a different, unique feature. There is another approach to markedness that is far more widely known within NT studies, though it is not used nearly so prevalently in linguistics proper. I mention it here for clarity sake, knowing that it may cause confusion for some. The intention is to show what I do not mean by markedness when I use the term.

The second approach to markedness is the symmetrical one. In this approach, the set is ordered in a cline from the most commonly occurring option to the least commonly occurring option. The most commonly occurring member is said to be the default or most basic option. As one moves up the scale of frequency, the members are said to become increasingly marked. The problem I have with this organizational approach is the answer to the question, “Marked for what?” The general answer is “prominence.” It does not allow one to isolate and uniquely describe each member of the set.

The symmetrical approach is fine for relatively simple sets, where there are no more than two or three options. However, the more complex the set becomes, the less explanatory value this framework holds. Furthermore, there are great risks with strictly clinging to statistics in organizing the data. Factors such as genre, content and authorial style will impact the distribution or frequency of data, thus changing the markedness scale. For instance, if Paul is making an argument in 2 Corinthians, and is using changes in word order to signal contrastive topics or to emphasize clause components, one will find a very different frequency of word orders compared to a story in narrative proper. One may even find significant difference within Pauline lit. for these same reasons. The result is the need to change the cline for each author or letter, which raises questions about how the different clines are to be related to one another.

If you would like to learn more about the pitfalls of over-reliance upon statistics, I would encourage you to read my review of Ivan Kwong’s work in RBL. The goal was to evaluate his approach on its own merits, not on it being different than mine. There are serious questions left unaddressed by his theoretical framework which significantly limit the veracity of his claims. Take a look. Statistics are helpful, good and productive. Nonetheless, they are only useful if properly handled.