AskDefine | Define metalanguage

Dictionary Definition

metalanguage n : a language that can be used to describe languages

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Any language or vocabulary of specialized terms used to describe or analyze a language.
  2. Any similar language used to define a programming language.


linguistical term
  • Icelandic: hjálparmál
  • Japanese: メタ言語
computing term
  • Finnish: metakieli
  • Icelandic: lýsimál
  • Japanese: メタ言語

Extensive Definition

In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about statements in another language which is called the object language. Formal syntactic models for the description of grammar, e.g. generative grammar, are a type of metalanguage. More broadly, it can refer to any terminology or language used to discuss language itself—a written grammar, for example, or a discussion about language use.


There are a variety of recognized metalanguages, including embedded, ordered, and nested ( hierarchical).
An embedded metalanguage, as its name suggests, is a language embedded in an object language. It occurs both formally and naturally. This idea is found in Douglas Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach, in his 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." (pg.270). It occurs in natural, or informal, languages, as well—such as in English, where adjectives, adverbs, and possessive pronouns constitute an embedded metalanguage; and where nouns, verbs, and, in some instances, adjectives and adverbs, constitute an object language. Thus, the adjective 'red' in the phrase 'red barn' is part of the embedded metalanguage of English, and the noun 'barn' is part of the object language. In the example, 'slowly running', the verb 'running' is part of the object language, and the adverb 'slowly' is part of the metalanguage.
An ordered metalanguage is analogous to ordered logic. An example of an ordered metalanguage would be the construction of one metalanguage to talk about an object language, followed by the creation of another metalanguage to talk about the first metalanguage, and so on.
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 talk about genus is also used to talk about species; the language that is used to talk about orders is also used to talk about geni; and, so on, up to kingdoms.

Role in metaphor

Michael Reddy (1979) 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, which holds that ideas can be expressed and interpreted through language. It incorporates these three interconnected metaphors:
  • Concepts, thoughts, feelings, meanings, sense and ideas are objects.
  • Words, sentences, and so on are containers (with an inside and an outside) for these objects.
  • Finally, communication is the act of sending and receiving these containers (through a conduit).
Those who speak and expect their meaning to be understood as it was intended are thinking of language as a conduit, perhaps a more faithful one than it truly is: miscommunications and misunderstandings can be attributed to this assumption.
Reddy offers sentences similar to the following as evidence of the prevalence of the conduit metaphor in society:
  1. What is the meaning in his words?
  2. Try to get your thoughts into words.
  3. I couldn't get any meaning out of his words.
  4. I couldn't find any sense in his words.
  5. His words were empty and 'devoid' of feeling.
  6. His promises were hollow.
  7. His ideas were hidden in a dense thicket of sentences.
  8. Like a maggot in a turd he hid within the word.
  9. How do I convey my love in mere words.
  10. How do I get it across to you that I don't want to see you again.
  11. I gave her a call.
  12. I received your call.
  13. I got the message.
Reddy estimates that fully 70% of the language we use to talk about the English language is based on this metaphor. While recognizing the prominence of this metaphor, Reddy is deeply troubled by it. He thinks of it as erroneous, misleading, and dehumanizing.


Computers follow programs which are sets of instructions in a clear and simple language. The development of a programming language involves the use of a metalanguage. Backus–Naur form is one of the earliest metalanguages used in computing and was developed in the 1960s by John Backus and Peter Naur.
HTML and XHTML are examples of markup languages that can be used by anyone wishing to present Web pages on the Internet with media such as text (formatted or unformatted), graphics, sound and video. Markup languages are different from metalanguages as they only describe how a document should be presented and not the syntax of a computer programming language, however it's possible to use schemas like XML Schemas to describe content rules. XML is the metalanguage used to describe XHTML just as SGML is used to describe HTML. XHTML is much stricter than HTML, for example XHTML is case sensitive unlike HTML. XSL can be considered as a Metalanguage, it allows to define how files encoded in the XML standard are to be formatted or transformed.
XML is used to describe other document types such as "OpenDocument Text" which is the native format for the word processor application in With XSD schemas it is possible to describe Metadata attached to an XML document, for example using Dublin Core standard. Many other metalanguages have been based on the W3C XML 1.0 standard, including:
Markup languages such as TeX and LaTeX can be used to create documents containing mathematical or scientific notation.

See also

Criminals metalanguage

Expressions in national languages, created during dialogues, which are based on phonemic and items associations refering to expressions in those languages. Accuracy of sentences is defined by even association of sender and receiver in the range of national language used. After few months both sender and receiver forget the meaning of words used during conversation.


  • 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.
  • Hofstadter, D. R. (1980). Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York, Vintage 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.
  • McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Reddy, Michael J. (1979). "The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language", in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 164-201.
  • Ritzer, G. (1991). Metatheorizing in Sociology.

External links

metalanguage in Arabic: لغة معرفة
metalanguage in Chuvash: Метачěлхе
metalanguage in Welsh: Uwchiaith
metalanguage in German: Metasprache
metalanguage in Modern Greek (1453-): Μεταγλώσσα
metalanguage in Spanish: Metalenguaje
metalanguage in French: Métalangage
metalanguage in Croatian: Metajezik
metalanguage in Lithuanian: Metakalba
metalanguage in Dutch: Metataal
metalanguage in Norwegian: Metaspråk
metalanguage in Polish: Metajęzyk
metalanguage in Japanese: メタ言語
metalanguage in Portuguese: Metalinguagem
metalanguage in Russian: Метаязык
metalanguage in Ukrainian: Метамова
metalanguage in Macedonian: Метајазик
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