Adam Jaworski said that “Texts can sometimes, curiously, refer to themselves.” 1
What is metalanguage? Perhaps you think this term describes an impenetrable concept or one that you understand partially but not totally. Well, after reading this article, you will be able to finally grasp the meaning of metalanguage.
In fact, you have been using it, albeit unknowingly, since school.
Deriving from Greek, the prefix meta defines something that refers to itself or to the conventions of its genre; terminologically, it describes something that is self-referential.
Metalanguage is also a language. It’s a specific language—words and symbols—that is used to describe a natural language.
From a linguistic perspective, a natural language is one that wasn’t artificially created. All natural languages contain metalanguages within themselves, as opposed to what happens with many non-natural languages.
Metalanguages may be used to analyze specific languages, but also language in general.
Since we’re talking about language referring to itself, we can say this is a reflexive process.
Formal syntactic models for grammatical description are a type of metalanguage. From a broader perspective, a metalanguage can refer to any terminology used to describe a language in itself, such as a grammatical description or a discussion on the use of a language.
Familiar words like noun, verb, adjective, preposition and adverb are all examples of metalanguage, used to explain and represent language. Other known examples could be phrasal verb, present perfect continuous, reported speech…
See? You do use metalanguage!
Metalanguage and communication
Humans express their thoughts, feelings, emotions and impressions through language, right?
And through language they are also able to transmit and receive objective information about what is going on around them. Metalanguage is not only about terminology, but also about the way we speak and the impact of how we do it on the success of our everyday communication.
Since many words can mean different things to different people, the choice of words may change the interpretation of other people, even if only slightly.
Philosophically speaking, the logic of the semantics is what determines if what is said is true or false, not the actual intention or meaning of the sentence. By adhering to logic, one can avoid metaphysical judgment, since logic will make judgment invalid. But let’s not go there. We will stay on the practical and familiar side of metalanguage.
Practical examples of metalanguage
As students, we have all studied, analyzed and interpreted texts and the authors’ intentions. Isn’t that true?
When working through texts, you were analyzing metalanguage. That is what helps us interpret what the authors may be trying to say and gives us insight into their ideas.
A completely linear writing would most likely be boring. So, since writers use figurative language and resources like foreshadowing and flashbacks to grab and retain the reader’s attention, literary writing is especially rich in metalanguage!
When we write an essay interpreting the way an author writes using words like symbolism, imagery or personification, we are using language that describes language.
For example, when journalism students are analyzing news articles, they will most likely find abstract language, such as, revolution, justice, legality, rights… They may also encounter unfamiliar language while analyzing media information, like rhetoric, alliteration, analepsis, metafiction, tone, rhythm…
In books, examples of metalanguage include narrator, characters, description, location, novel, poetry, prose, short story, linear / non-linear narrative, past, present, future, tone, dialogue, climax, ending…
In cinema, examples of metalanguage include camera angles, set, mise-en-scene, lighting and music, protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, plot-twist…
Metalanguage common to both fields would be: adventure, comic, horror, crime, drama…
Are you starting to get the picture?
The importance of metalanguage
In light of the above, we are starting to understand the relevance of metalanguage. But let’s dive a little deeper.
When writing, if you intentionally include metalanguage, you can make it a little bit more sophisticated, intricate and unique.
Sometimes metalanguage is metaphorical and abstract. Conceptual language tends to be abstract, that is, related to themes or content contained in the text or associated with literary analysis.
Metalanguage is also used to describe the syntax of programming languages. Mathematical logic and linguistics both use metalanguages. 🧮
In more literary subjects, to perform a good revision or proofreading, a professional translator cannot be stuck in his own frame of thinking. There are usually two frames of mind: the writer and the reviewer.
So, when reviewing creative or literary writing, or copywriting, you often have to look at a sentence from different perspectives to assess if there’s really an error. Metalinguistic awareness is what allows us to distinguish these subtle meanings in a text. In revision, sometimes this happens with subject-verb agreement in a long, more layered sentence. It might look wrong if you don’t get the whole logic.
As referred above, metalinguistic awareness is also used when we teach/learn a foreign language. In fact, it’s a mandatory skill in learning a second language. 📚
It makes it easier for teachers to address the more technical aspects of a language by offering a framework to help with explanations, and by helping students compartmentalize both languages.
As you can see, we use metalanguage all the time, even if unconsciously, to communicate effectively.
In the case of linguistic professionals, such as translators, reviewers, proofreaders and copywriters, they use metalanguage on a daily basis as part of their professional toolkit.
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1 Adam Jaworski et al., Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives, 2004.