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May 19 / Steve Runge

Markedness: qualitative versus quantitative, part 2

In my first post, I discussed qualitative markedness, which is the primary organizational framework used by linguists to distinguish meaningful differences among members of a complex set. It is typically referred to as “asymmetrical markedness,” and I’d suggest Edna Andrews work for a thorough introduction. She does a nice job making clear the symmetrical/asymmetrical distinction in great detail. Most references to markedness you’ll find outside of NT studies will be referring to asymmetrical relations.

Within NT studies, Stan Porter has developed an approach that is symmetrical in nature. Instead of looking for the distinctive markers that make the set asymmetrical, the symmetrical approach distinguishes the set members by means of some quantitative scale or “cline.” It does not seek to describe quality, but quantity.

Certain words all share the same basic quality, such as the adjectives “good,” better,” and “best.” They differ in the quantity which is expressed, making them a symmetrical set. Thus the meaningful distinction among them is not the quality they possess, but the quantity of it. We could use a hierarchical cline to express this quantitative difference: Good < Better < Best. All the words focus on the same quality, but they differ in the quantity expressed. More specific examples will be provided as I move through some of Porter’s sources.

This symmetrical approach to markedness is rarely used in linguistic circles, as there are not many factors that are best described in this way. I am hard pressed to provide more complex examples from the literature because I have not seen them there. What’s my point? Very few linguistic features are quantitative in nature, the vast majority are qualitative. Later in this series, I’ll note places where Porter cites qualitative discussions of markedness as support for his quantitative approach to markedness. He appears to have missed the meaningful distinction to be made between the two.

In his article “Prominence: an overview,” Porter states, “I wish to posit here a cline of prominence that attempts to recognize linguistic features with their levels of formal marking along with a semantic scale of grounding. The markedness refers to the formal characteristics…”1 Later in his discussion of the relation between markedness and prominence, Porter outlines the factors he believes contribute quantitatively to the prominence of a linguistic element:

Markedness has undergone much evaluation. What started as an attempt to mark specific phonological features, has broadened to include a variety of features that go toward indicating markedness. The result is that markedness is a concept that includes a complex of factors, depending upon the items being considered. Markedness in this scheme is not a matter of privative opposition regarding a single feature, but a cline of markedness values, from the least to the most heavily marked, but all formally based. Markedness can be divided into five categories: material, implicational, distributional, positional and cognitive.2

What Porter is claiming here is that his model of markedness is not asymmetrical or qualitative (i.e. “not a matter of privative opposition regarding a single feature,”) but quantitative and symmetrical. He is acknowledging that his methodology departs from the norm of distinguishing members of a set by means of privative relationships (i.e. +/-  statements about the presence or absence of a particular quality, see part 1 of this series).

In the posts that follow, I’ll take a look at each of the factors Porter claims contribute quantitatively to the markedness value of a given form. His markedness framework outlined here is indispensable to his theory of aspectual prominence, i.e. that the stative aspect represents the frontground of discourse, and thus conveys the highest level of prominence in the discourse. His latest article extends what was originally a claim limited to verbal aspect more broadly to other grammatical features of Greek. The veracity of these models is completely dependent upon two pillars:

  1. Porter’s model of grounding in discourse, discussed in a series of posts beginning here;
  2. Porter’s model of quantitative markedness, which will be discussed in the balance of this series.

I have already demonstrated regarding grounding that Porter’s model lacks any credible support from the literature. He applies claims that are genre-specific globally to all genres. He does not maintain the limitations found in the literature he cites as support. The result: Porter fundamentally misunderstands how it is that grounding brings about prominence. In the case of markedness, he appears to read qualitative claims made by typological linguists like Comrie and Lyons as though they were quantitative in nature, invalidating the conclusions he draws. It represents the same kind of misunderstanding of the markedness literature as seen in the grounding literature.

In my next post, I’ll tackle his discussion of material markedness.

Return to On Porter, Prominence and Aspect

  1. Porter, Stanley E. “Prominence: An Overview.” In The Linguist as Pedagogue, edited by Stanley E Porter and Matthew Brook O’Donnell, 45-74 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd, 2009), 52. []
  2. Ibid., 55-56. []

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