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Broadly, any metalanguage is language or symbols used when language itself is being discussed or examined.1 In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about statements in another language (the object language). Expressions in a metalanguage are often distinguished from those in an object language by the use of italics, quotation marks, or writing on a separate line.
There is a variety of recognized metalanguages, including embedded, ordered, and nested (or, hierarchical).
An embedded metalanguage is a language formally, naturally and firmly fixed in an object language. This idea is found in Douglas Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach, in a discussion of the relationship between formal languages and number theory: “... it is in the nature of any formalization of number theory that its metalanguage is embedded within it.”.2 It occurs in natural, or informal, languages, as well—such as in English, where words such as noun, verb, or even word describe features and concepts pertaining to the English language itself.
An ordered metalanguage is analogous to ordered logic. An example of an ordered metalanguage is the construction of one metalanguage to discuss an object language, followed by the creation of another metalanguage to discuss the first, etc.
A nested (or, hierarchical) metalanguage is similar to an ordered metalanguage in that each level represents a greater degree of abstraction. However, a nested metalanguage differs from an ordered one in that each level includes the one below. The paradigmatic example of a nested metalanguage comes from the Linnean taxonomic system in biology. Each level in the system incorporates the one below it. The language used to discuss genus is also used to discuss species; the one used to discuss orders is also used to discuss genera, etc., up to kingdoms.
There are several entities commonly expressed in a metalanguage. In logic usually the object language that the metalanguage is discussing is a formal language, and very often the metalanguage as well.
A metavariable (or, metalinguistic variable) is a symbol or set of symbols in a metalanguage which stands for a symbol or set of symbols in some object language. For instance, in the sentence:
The symbols A and B are not symbols of the object language , they are metavariables in the metalanguage (in this case, English) that is discussing the object language .
A metatheory is a theory whose subject matter is some other theory (a theory about a theory). Statements made in the metatheory about the theory are called metatheorems. A metatheorem is a true statement about a formal system expressed in a metalanguage. Unlike theorems proved within a given formal system, a metatheorem is proved within a metatheory, and may reference concepts that are present in the metatheory but not the object theory.4
Michael J. Reddy (1979) discovered and has demonstrated that much of the language we use to talk about language is conceptualized and structured by what he refers to as the conduit metaphor.5 This paradigm operates through two distinct, related frameworks.
The major framework views language as a sealed pipeline between people:
1. Language transfers people's thoughts and feelings (mental content) to others
ex: Try to get your thoughts across better.
2. Speakers and writers insert their mental content into words
ex: You have to put each concept into words more carefully.
3. Words are containers
ex: That sentence was filled with emotion.
4. Listeners and writers extract mental content from words
ex: Let me know if you find any new sensations in the poem.
The minor framework views language as an open pipe spilling mental content into the void:
1. Speakers and writers eject mental content into an external space
ex: Get those ideas out where they can do some good.
2. Mental content is reified (viewed as concrete) in this space
ex: That concept has been floating around for decades.
3. Listeners and writers extract mental content from this space
ex: Let me know if you find any good concepts in the essay.
Computers follow programs, sets of instructions in a clear and simple language. The development of a programming language involves the use of a metalanguage. Backus–Naur Form, developed in the 1960s by John Backus and Peter Naur, is one of the earliest metalanguages used in computing.
- Category theory
- Conduit metaphor
- Language-oriented programming
- Metalinguistic abstraction
- Metalocutionary act
- Natural Semantic Metalanguage
- Self reference
- Use–mention distinction
- Audi, R. 1996. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Baldick, C. 1996. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cuddon, J. A. 1999. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books.
- Honderich, T. 1995. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Matthews, P. H. 1997. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280008-4
- McArthur, T. 1996. The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 2010. Cambridge Advanced Learner‘s Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dictionary online. Available from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/metalanguage Internet. Retrieved 20 November 2010
- Hofstadter, Douglas. 1980. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books ISBN 0-14-017997-6
- Hunter, Geoffrey. 1971. Metalogic: An Introduction to the Metatheory of Standard First-Order Logic. Berkeley:University of California Press ISBN 978-0-520-01822-8
- Ritzer, George. 1991. Metatheorizing in Sociology. New York: Simon Schuster ISBN 0-669-25008-2
- Reddy, Michael J. 1979. The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Metalanguage, Principia Cybernetica
- Willard McCarty (submitted 2006) Problematic Metaphors, Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 92.
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