Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Marked & Unmarked

see also assimilation

Examples of "Marked and Unmarked" in linguistics
thanks to

In contemporary discussions of the various possible identities in an increasingly multicultural society, distinctions between "marked and unmarked" status became one of the most useful and flexible figures of speech.

The unmarked-marked distinction originally applied to linguistics—see chart above.

Feminist studies applied the unmarked-marked distinction to gender differences: see Deborah Tannen, "Marked Women, Unmarked Men" The New York Times Magazine, 20 June 1993.

The concept spread to other cultural differences including race / ethnicity and class.

The simplest expression of marked and unmarked status works like this:

Identities or characteristics of the dominant culture are unmarked.

Identities or characteristics of immigrant and minority cultures are more or less marked.


1. If immigrants and minorities are marked, their speech, behavior, or appearance shows signs or marks of difference from those of the dominant culture.


accented English, "sub-standard" English

fashion (Muslim veil, colorful make-up)

religion as public rather than private (Catholic schools with crucifixes and saints' days, Muslim calls to prayer) 

ethnic names: Nguyen, Syed, Alejandra, Takisha

(African American culture maintains "unique name" traditions: Dejuan > D'juan; African American women's names accented on 2nd syllable: Takisha, Yolanda, Beyonce; + neighborhood nicknames)


2. If representatives of the dominant culture are unmarked, their speech, behavior, or appearance shows no signs or marks that indicate difference from the dominant-culture norms—or differences operate in a very narrow range. (Mrs. White: Democrats let their hair fall forward; Republicans sweep it back.)


standard English

plain style of clothing, make-up (business suits, light blush)

Protestantism as private religion: empty cross, empty tomb; see plain style as church design

Anglo-frontier or soap opera names: Kevin, Chase, Brittany, Brandon, Skylar, Caleb


Assimilation erases marked cultural differences (e.g. "soap and water," public education) but physical marks or differences take generations (e.g. through intermarriage).

The question how much assimilation is desirable, or who assimilates to whom, continues to be debated in schools (assimilation or multiculturalism?)

and in everyday private decisions of marriage, adoption, etc.