Metalanguage in Linguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Texts can sometimes, curiously, refer to themselves" (Adam Jaworski et al., Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives, 2004). Tobi CorneyMore/Getty Images

"I know this is a silly question before I ask it, but can you Americans speak any other language besides​ English?" (Kruger, Inglourious Basterds).

Metalanguage is the language used to talk about language. Terminology and forms associated with this field are called metalinguistic. The term metalanguage was originally used by linguist Roman Jakobson and other Russian Formalists.

The language under study is called the object language and the language being used to make assertions about it is the metalanguage. In the quote above, the object language is English.

English as the Object and Metalanguage

A single language can function as both an object language and a metalanguage at the same time. This is the case when English speakers examine English. "English speakers, of course, do not study only foreign languages; they also study their own language. When they do, the object language and the metalanguage are one and the same. In practice, this works quite well. Given some grasp of basic English, one can understand a grammar text written in English," (Simpson 2008).

Language Shifts

There are times when speakers will begin a conversation in one language only to realize that another language would be much more appropriate. Often, when individuals realize that a language switch is necessary mid-conversation for the sake of collective understanding, they use metalanguage to orchestrate it. Elizabeth Traugott goes into this further using literature as a frame of reference.

"When languages other than English are represented mainly in English [in fiction], with sporadic shifts to the real language, little metalanguage is usually involved (one of the problems with Hemingway's use of Spanish is his overuse of metalanguage, particularly translation). However, when situations arise within the action of the story that involve language-switch, metalanguage is typical. It is obviously necessary when both languages are being represented in English. Page cites a particularly clever use of metalanguage totally incorporated in the conversation:

'She speaks French?'
'Not a word.'
'She understands it?'
'One may then speak plainly in her presence?'

but only after lengthy preparation through mixed use of English and 'broken English' to set the linguistic frame of reference," (Traugott 1981).

Metalinguistic Awareness

The following excerpt, from Patrick Hartwell's essay "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar," details the ability to dissect the processes and features of language objectively and from many perspectives known as metalinguistic awareness. "The notion of metalinguistic awareness seems crucial. The sentence below, created by Douglas R. Hofstadter ('Metamagical Themes,' Scientific American, 235, No. 1 [1981], 22-32), is offered to clarify that notion; you are invited to examine it for a moment or two before continuing.

  • Their is four errors in this sentance. Can you find them?

Three errors announce themselves plainly enough, the misspellings of there and sentence and the use of is instead of are. (And, just to illustrate the perils of hyperliteracy, let it be noted that, through three years of drafts, I referred to the choice of is and are as a matter of 'subject-verb agreement.')

The fourth error resists detection until one assesses the truth value of the sentence itself—the fourth error is that there are not four errors, only three. Such a sentence (Hofstadter calls it a 'self-referencing sentence') asks you to look at it in two ways, simultaneously as statement and as linguistic artifact—in other words, to exercise metalinguistic awareness," (Patrick Hartwell, "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." College English, Feb. 1985).

Foreign Language Learning

Metalinguistic awareness is an acquired skill. Michel Paradis argues that this skill is related to foreign language learning. "The fact that metalinguistic knowledge never becomes implicit linguistic competence does not mean that it is useless for the acquisition of a second/foreign language. Metalinguistic awareness obviously helps one learn a language; in fact, it is a prerequisite. But it may also help one acquire it, albeit only indirectly," (Paradis 2004).

Metaphors and Metalanguage

Metalanguage closely resembles a literary device that references one object in the abstract by equating it to another: the metaphor. Both these and metalanguage function in the abstract as tools for comparison. "We are so immersed in our own metalanguage," says Roger Lass, "that we may not notice (a) that it is much more metaphorical than we think, and (b) how important ... metaphors are as devices for framing our thinking," (Historical Linguistics and Language Change, 1997).

Metalanguage and the Conduit Metaphor

The conduit metaphor is a class of metaphors used to talk about communication, much in the same way that metalanguage is a class of language used to talk about language.

"In his groundbreaking study ["The Conduit Metaphor," 1979] [Michael J.] Reddy examines the ways in which English speakers communicate about language, and identifies the conduit metaphor as central. In fact, he argues, using the conduit metaphor actually influences our thinking about communication. We can hardly avoid using these metaphors in talking about our communication with others; for example, I think I'm getting your point. I can't grasp what you're saying. Our metaphors indicate that we reify ideas and that these ideas move between people, sometimes getting twisted out of recognition, or taken out of context," (Fiksdal 2008).

The Metalinguistic Vocabulary of Natural Languages

In linguistic, a natural language is any language that has developed organically and has not been artificially constructed. John Lyons explains why these languages contain their own metalanguages. "[I]t is a commonplace of philosophical semantics that natural languages (in contrast with many non-natural, or artificial, languages) contain their own metalanguage: they may be used to describe, not only other languages (and language in general), but also themselves. The property by virtue of which a language may be used to refer to itself (in whole or in part) I will call reflexivity. ...

[I]f we are aiming for precision and clarity, English, like other natural languages, cannot be used for metalinguistic purposes without modification. As far as the metalinguistic vocabulary of natural languages is concerned, there are two kinds of modification open to us: regimentation and extension. We can take existing everyday words, such as 'language,' 'sentence,' 'word,' 'meaning,' or 'sense,' and subject them to strict control (i.e., regiment their use), defining them or re-defining them for our own purposes (just as physicists re-define 'force' or 'energy' for their specialized purposes). Alternatively, we can extend the everyday vocabulary by introducing into it technical terms which are not normally used in everyday conversations," (Lyons 1995).


  • Fiksdal, Susan. "Metaphorically Speaking: Gender and Classroom Discourse." Cognitive Sociolinguistics: Language Variation, Cultural Models, Social Systems. Walter de Gruyter, 2008.
  • Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." College English, vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 105-127., Feb. 1985.
  • Inglourious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Universal Pictures, 2009.
  • Lyons, John. Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Paradis, Michel. A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. John Benjamins Publishing, 2004.
  • Simpson, R. L. Essentials of Symbolic Logic. 3rd ed., Broadview Press, 2008.
  • Traugott, Elizabeth C. “The Voice of Varied Linguistic and Cultural Groups in Fiction: Some Criteria for the Use of Language Varieties in Writing.” Writing: The Nature, Development, and Teaching of Written Communication, vol. 1, Routledge, 1981.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Metalanguage in Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Metalanguage in Linguistics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Metalanguage in Linguistics." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).