Markedness, Part 2
This is the second part of an introduction to markedness, specifically an asymmetrical view. In the first part, I talked about how the default is the most basic member of a complex set, the option that generally occurs most frequently. This becomes the canon or baseline against which the non-default or marked options are described. Each of the marked options is understood to signal that some distinct feature is present that the default would not have signaled. If the default is used, the feature may or may not be present; nothing about the default signals one way or the other. So let’s take a set of items and organize it based on what each member of the set marks or signals is present.
If we look at the Greek verbal system, for instance, we could take the standard explanations of the verb forms and organize them as an asymmetrical system. The aorist form is generally understood to portray the action as an undifferentiated whole. It is the form that is used when there is no particular interest in looking at some aspect of the action in greater detail. Aorist also happens to be the most frequently occurring form in narrative proper, reported speeches, and epistolary literature. Based on its simplicity and its frequency, it is reasonable to take the aorist as the unmarked or default form around which the asymmetrical explanation of the verbs would be organized. Saying it is the default makes no judgment about the significance or prominence of the aorist, as in a symmetrical framework. It simply forms the canon against which the other forms will be described. In other words, the other forms will be described by how the are not the aorist. The aorist is the form used when you do not “care enough to send the very best.”
The present and imperfect form are generally differentiated from the aorist on the basis of perfectivity. While the aorist protrays the action as perfective (i.e. a complete, undifferentiated whole), the aorist present and imperfect grammaticalize imperfective action. Both forms explicitly mark the presence of impefectivity, portraying the action as ongoing or incomplete. A writer may use an aorist form to describe an action that is ongoing or incomplete. However, the aorist is unmarked for imperfectivity. It may or may not be present, nothing in the form signals whether it is present or not. The aorist portrays the action as an undifferentiated whole, nothing more. If the writer had wanted to draw attention to the imperfective nature of an action, i.e. to explicitly mark this feature as present, he would need to use a form that explicitly marks it. In Koine, this would be the imperfect or present forms.
Wallace describes what he calls the “ingressive aorist” wherein the aorist tense “may be used to stress the beginning of an action or the entrance into a state.”1 He cites Matthew 9:27, 22:7, John 4:52 and 2 Corinthians 8:9 as examples. However, if the aorist is indeed perfective (which I believe it is), and if it views the action as an undifferentiated whole (which I believe it does), then it is not accurate to describe the aorist as “stressing the beginning of an action.” From an asymmetrical view of the verb forms, an action in the aorist may or may not be incomplete or ingressive. Nothing in the form marks this feature. It seems better to say that actions expressed in the aorist may indeed be more complex, but nothing about the aorist “stresses” this. If a writer had wanted to stress it, he would have used a form that explicitly marks the desired feature.
In the case of Wallace’s examples, the ingressive nature of the action is better understood as being unmarked, present but not stressed. And in contrast to the symmetrical view of markedness–which views the aorist as the least prominent form because it is most common–the asymmetrical view is concerned with what feature is marked as present. In many cases, the default option does correlate with “least prominent”. However, as one moves up the symmetrical cline or frequency, the explanatory power of the system quickly breaks down.
One last comment about Wallace’s claim. In the description of the ingressive aorist, he states further, “Unlike the ingressive imperfect, there is no implication that the action continues. This is simply left unstated. The ingressive aorist is quite common.”2 In other words, it is sort of like an ingressive imperfect, but not really. To claim that the aorist form portrays the action as an undifferentiated whole is not to deny that the action is more complex, as Wallace claims regarding these ingressive aorists. Instead, the use of the aorist implies a meaning: If the writer had wanted to explicitly mark the action as ingressive, the imperfect form would have explicitly done so. Use of the aorist implies a disinterest on the writer’s part in explicitly marking the ingressive nature. This may be motivated by it being so obvious that a caveman could recognize it. Alternatively, it may be that the writer was more concerned with other matters, and simply wanted to express the action without a finer differentiation regarding the kind of action.
So to summarize, the asymmetrical view of markedness is an organizational framework for breaking down a complex set to facilitate the description of each member. The most basic member of the set (which often happens to be the most frequently occurring) is adopted as the canon or baseline, called the default. It is used to describe the other members of the set by describing how they differ from the default, and from each other. The default is considered to be unmarked for the features found marked in the other members. It may or may not be present, there is no explicit marker to indicate one way or another. In contrast, the other members each mark a unique constraint or feature as being present, ones that are unmarked by the default. The asymmetrical approach allows a complex set to be broken down and organized into essentially binary oppositions, allowing one to discretely compare members to determine the meaningful differences among them.
In contrast, the symmetrical view organizes the same set based on frequency of occurrence, with the least frequent ones being construed as the “most marked”. There is no answer to the question of “Marked for what?” in this system, other than to say they are “more prominent”. The goal of the symmetrical view is not to isolate the meaningful difference between each member. The more marked forms are simply considered to be more prominent, to stand out more in the discourse. It holds little explanatory value in determining the meaningful differences between each of the forms. The complex set remains complex, simply reorganized by frequency. I will drop the issue of symmetrical markedness from here on out. It is crucial that you understand the distinction that I make here, as the two views are near opposites.
If there is anyone out there that can provide a cogent answer to my questions of “Marked for what?” or “What is the meaningful difference between the more marked and less marked forms other than ‘markedness’ or ‘prominence’?” I would love to hear it. I have been asking since 2005 and am still waiting.
I will take up the imperfective aspect in the next post. Isn’t grammar wonderful?