Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable, by Eviatar Zerubavel

Andrea Macrae reflects on what is being said when we accept the things that go without saying

June 7, 2018
Disabled toilet sign
Source: iStock

The words and phrases that we use reflect and reaffirm our culturally conditioned perceptions of what is normal and what is abnormal. Examples include the use of “disabled toilets” but the absence of “able-bodied toilets”, and “working mom” but not “working dad”.

This is the first of Eviatar Zerubavel’s main points. His second is that what is not “marked” with specific labels is often the “default”: for example, a common default assumption is that people are able-bodied. This is the “taken for granted” of his title. His third point is that “marked” and “unmarked” phrases can reflect and be used for sociopolitical ends, such as to appeal to or provide a platform for specific groups. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is offered as an example.

Zerubavel is as interested in foregrounding the culturally “invisible” norms as he is in the ways that we draw attention, linguistically, to the abnormal. He presents swathes of examples of words and phrases used to “unmark” the “hitherto marked” (for example, calling what has been termed “women’s soccer” just “soccer”) and to “mark” and make “culturally visible” the “hitherto unmarked” (such as “cisgender” and his own coinage for a white “default”, “leukonormativity”).

The book goes beyond claiming that “American” culture takes for granted “maleness, whiteness and able-bodiedness” to argue that this embodies “what we conventionally consider to be normal”.

Zerubavel also briefly acknowledges that “markedness” varies across different subcultures and situations (for example, sickness is abnormal in general, but the norm in hospitals).

Significantly, though, Zerubavel does not address the many reasons why someone might choose to use a specific term in a particular situation and/or set of (inevitably intermingling) subcultures. Also, although one topic is “semiotic asymmetry”, he does not notice the functional asymmetry in the terms that he compares. For example, he contrasts “polyamory” with “monoamory”, rather than the word more often used as its opposite – “monogamy”. “Polyamory” is used more frequently than “monoamory”, certainly, but its “markedness” is not so clear when compared with the frequency of “monogamy”.

A further methodological issue is that Zerubavel’s most common source of evidence is the number of web pages on which a word or phrase is shown as occurring if searched for on Google, which he presents as a reflection of how frequently it is used in society, and in turn how socially “marked” it is. Given that he’s searching only in English, and using a 25-year-wide, international corpus, this is a problematic way to make claims about polylingual contemporary North American culture – and online discourse does not represent all discourse.

Taken for Granted is an interesting, thought-provoking, easy read, and the bibliography presents a wealth of impressively cross-disciplinary influences, each worth investigating. The book is most poignant, though, in revealing how quickly use of “marked” language, and underlying cultural norms, can shift. For example, Zerubavel’s claim that adults presume heteronormativity when talking to teenagers is thankfully, within my subcultures at least, swiftly becoming out of date.

Andrea Macrae is a senior lecturer in stylistics at Oxford Brookes University.


Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable
By Eviatar Zerubavel
Princeton University Press
160pp, £14.95
ISBN 9780691177366
Published 9 May 2018

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POSTSCRIPT:

Headline: Can we undo the default setting?

Reader's comments (1)

I think the reviewer has got her "gamy" and "amory" mixed up. It is possible for someone to be monogamous and polyamorous. Or, indeed, polygamous and monoamorous.

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