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Sep 28 / Steve Runge

Semantic markedness, part deux

This is a follow-up post to yesterday’s. After a four month summer break, I have gotten a little foggy about the protocol. I neglected to consult Porter’s “Prominence” article to see how he treated the idea of semantic markedness in his most recent work. It turns out he has changed his views somewhat.

First, he changes terminology from semantic to cognitive, commenting in note 37, “I use the term cognitive markedness rather than semantic markedness to specify that the markedness is formally based but concerned with the complexity of the notions involved. There is clear overlap with the notion of semantics.”1 He still uses Zwicky as his primary citation on markedness, though he refers readers to Givόn and Andrews. I’ll tackle the latter when I discuss frequency, but he cites pages 136-39 from Andrews’ “Myths about Markedness” chapter, seemingly as support! Why my surprise? On the cited pages, she in fact argues against the efficacy of the statistically-based model Porter uses. Why Porter cites her counter-argument–yet without engaging it–is a little baffling. Andrews’ comments about statistics may be read here on Google books. Since he has cited it, I’d encourage you to read it.

Later on the same page, Porter defines cognitive markedness: “Cognitive markedness indicates that the elements that have more precisely defined cognitive features are those that have greater markedness (e.g. genitive over other cases).”2 This sounds similar to Comrie’s discussion, but is much more vague. No sources are provided in support. At the opening of the section that discusses matters of markedness, he cites Martin Haspelmath’s “Against Markedness (and what to Replace it with),” but without engaging it at all.3  Might have been good if he did, as Haspelmath builds a convincing case against the legitimacy of among other things–you guessed it–cognitive/semantic markedness. Haspelmath’s article is available here in full-text, and I would strongly encourage you to read it for yourself.  I’ll cover some of his arguments in an upcoming post, but he demonstrates that the four distinct kinds of markedness on which Porter’s entire theoretical framework is built are all actually better understood as derivatives of frequency, and thus do not provide the independent corroboration that Porter claims. I don’t understand his rationale for including it, but since he did I’d encourage you to read it.

Return to On Porter, Prominence and Aspect.

  1. Stanley E. Porter, “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), 56. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., 55. See Martin Haspelmath,  “Against Markedness (and what to Replace it with),” Journal of Linguistics (2006), 42:1:25-70. []