In one of my English literature courses, my professor talked about how minority writers are often "marked" by a qualifier, while majority writers are unmarked. For example, Langston Hughes is often referred to or thought of as "a black poet," but T.S. Eliot is just "a poet" rather than "a white poet," and Jane Austen is "an important female writer" while Charles Dickens is just "an important writer."

Here's an example I took from a biography of Langston Hughes that can be found on the University of Illinois website. Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg are not marked as "white poets," but Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay are marked as "black poets."

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That course was a few years ago, and I can't quite remember the term my professor used to refer to this phenomenon. I thought he called it "marked and unmarked qualifiers," but a Google search for these terms doesn't bring up any relevant results. Then again, perhaps my professor was just inventing his own term for it, and there is a more academic term for it out there, or maybe no term at all.

Does anyone know of a term for this phenomenon that has a credible source?


2 Answers 2


This may be specific to the jargon of Critical Theory as inherited by SJWs, but in those contexts I’ve seen the term normative used. For (a contrived) example, a work marking left-handedness but leaving right-handedness as the unmarked default might be said to be “dexter-normative.”


Marked/unmarked is indeed a well-established terminology for this, in many fields — originally linguistics, and from there, various social sciences. From Wikipedia, Markedness:

In linguistics and social sciences, markedness is the state of standing out as unusual or divergent in comparison to a more common or regular form. In a marked–unmarked relation, one term of an opposition is the broader, dominant one.

In particular, in the section on Cultural markedness and informedness:

Linda Waugh extended this to oppositions like male/female, white/black, sighted/blind, hearing/deaf, heterosexual/homosexual, right/left, fertility/barrenness, clothed/nude, and spoken language/written language. Battistella expanded this with the demonstration of how cultures align markedness values to create cohesive symbol systems, illustrating with examples based on Rodney Needham's work.

The Wikipedia article isn’t very comprehensive, and doesn’t say much more about the specific kind of usage you describe — but I’ve heard this terminology very widely used in that sense, in both technical and non-technical contexts.

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