today in sociolinguistics, we had a discussion about 'markedness.' the term originated with the prague school of linguistics (generally associated with the structuralist movement), but it seems to parallel useful concepts found in post-structuralist theory. let's explore!
according to the wikipedia article, the linguistic concept of markedness originally referred to certain phonemes that had additional or non-basic features. that is, if schwa (the vowel sound in 'putt') is central, unrounded, etc., it is unmarked in comparison to the vowel sound in 'pete', which is marked for features like 'high.' the same concept has been expanded to syntactic and semantic structures when one is considered more basic or natural.
sociolinguists have found that marked forms are generally associated with more formal discourse. for instance, in english, latin and greek derivatives are more marked than anglo-saxon forms, so 'canine' is more formal than 'dog.' i sense a certain circularity here that i'll return to later.
markedness plays another interesting role in sociolinguistics. in many cases, the unmarked term in a set of opposite terms is also the name of the category that encompasses both of those terms. for instance, 'cow' technically refers to a female bovine. but it can also be used to refer to a group of both cows and bulls. the term 'bull,' on the other hand, can only be used to refer to males, and never to a mixed-gender group. (it's an interesting example, our sociolinguistics professor points out, because it's one of the few gender examples in which the female is the unmarked term.)
in the same way, your height is never referred to as your shortness, no one ever asks 'how slow were you running?' except in extreme cases, and '___ years young' is a kind of joke, because 'height,' 'fast,' and 'old,' are the unmarked terms in their respective binaries.
i'm sure you're asking: what does all this have to do with derrida? well, in the above examples it's fairly trivial to point out that the privileging (unmarking, naturalizing) of one term is arbitrary. it is perpetuated by convention, and goodness knows why it occurs in the first place (that's what sociolinguists try to figure out... good luck, guys). but post-structuralists point out that this also occurs on a more conceptual level. for instance, speech is privileged over writing because it's seen as more natural, older, and because it requires the presence of both speaker and listener (the privileging of speech over writing, besides structuring a lot of philosophical metaphors, is why linguists study speech almost exclusively!). but all the explanatory binaries: naturalness/unnaturalness, purity/impurity, originality/derivation, presence/absence are equally conventional and arbitrary. and linking all the privileged sides of those binaries to each other is also conventional, arbitrary, and empirically untestable. so derrida points out that speech actually has all the impurity, derivation and unnaturalness of writing and that ALL signification is, in this sense, writing.
post-structuralism is often erroneously equated with relativism. undoing all conceptual binaries by demonstrating that they're founded in this linguistic way amounts to relativism only if one believes that language is immaterial. but it can be shown to have real effects in the world. the arbitrary privileging of one half of the writing/speech binary actually determines how we study linguistics. to return to a linguistic example, the difference between saying '21 years old' and '21 years young' is arbitrary, but still meaningful and important.
and i'll just quickly close with my question about markedness and formality: are marked forms more formal, or are formal forms more marked? if markedness develops through conventions of use, these connections can't really be used to predict anything (language change, patterns of reference) except how people will tend to interpret the use of certain terms.