Metalanguage in linguistics is a language used to make statements about language (the object language). Formal syntatic models for the description of grammar, eg. 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.



The English language functions as a metalanguage in many contexts not limited to linguistics, such as logic, science, and mathematics. In logic, the terms 'syllogism', 'proposition', 'conclusion', 'premise', 'true', 'false', 'sound', 'unsound', 'valid', and 'invalid' are all part of the metalanguage of logic that are also part of English (this is not to be confused with metalogic which is concerned with the boundaries, limits, scope, and foundations of logic itself.) The terms cited above are those used to talk about different kinds of propositions and their relations.

Unsurprisingly, English is also used as a metalanguage in science. Consider the chemical equation 2H2 + O2 → 2H2O. This an example of a balanced equation, one in which energy is conserved. Both the phrase 'balanced equation' and 'energy is conserved' are used to talk about the equation and as such are part of the metalanguage of chemistry. The same ideas can be extended to physics as well as the underlying chemistry and physics in biology, geology, ecology, and so on. The conservation laws, for example, can be said to be part of the metalanguage of all the sciences. Naturally this gives rise to Metascience understood to be the study of the metalanguages of the various sciences. Thus, for example, a new meaning for metaphysics results: the study of the metalanguage(s) of physics,ect.

In mathematics there are numerous examples where English is used as a metalanguage. The terms 'one', 'two', 'three' are metalanguage used to talk about the natural numbers 1, 2, and 3. The terms 'axiom', 'theorem', 'postulate', 'law', and 'proof' are part of the metalanguage of geometry. This is not to be confused with metamathematics which is concerned with proof theory; even metamathematics, however, has its own metalanguage, including such terms as 'consistent', 'inconsistent', 'complete', and 'incomplete'. The terms 'point', 'line','plane', and 'polyhedra' are all part of the metalanguage used to talk about the graphic object language of geometry. In arithmetic the terms 'plus', 'minus', 'multiply', and 'divide' are part of the metalanguage for the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In algebra the terms 'variable', 'independent variable', 'dependent variable', and 'equation' are part of its metalanguage.

Metalanguages are not limited to English either. The relationship between two foreign languages can also be interpreted as that of a metalanguage to an object language. Spanish can be a metalanguage to English and vice versa. One can talk about Spanish in English and English in Spanish, as is often done when each is taught as a second language.


There are a variety of recognized kinds of metalanguages including embedded, ordered, and nested or hierachical.

Embedded metalanguages, as their name suggests, are metalanguages embedded in an object language. They occur both formally and naturally. This idea is found in Douglas Hofstader's book Godel, Escher, Bach in his discussion of the relationship between formal languages and number theory: " is in the nature of any formalization of number theory that it's metalanguage is embedded within it" (pg.270). They occur in informal languages as well, such as in English, where adjectives, adverbs, and possesive pronouns serve as an embedded metalanguage, while nouns, verbs, and in some instances adjectives and adverbs serve as an object language. Thus the term 'red' in the phrase 'red barn' is part of the embedded metalanguage of English and the term 'barn' is part of the object language. A similar example for adverbs is the term 'slowly' in the phrase 'slowly running'.

Ordered metalanguages are analogous to ordered logics. An example of an ordered metalanguage would be the construction of one metalanguage to talk about an object language, then creating another metalanguage to talk about the first metalanguage, and so on for as long as is necessary.

Nested or hierarchical metalanguages are similar to ordered metalanguages in that each level represents a greater degree of abstraction. However, nested metalanguages differ from ordered ones 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. The conduit metaphor is actually three interconnected metaphors:

  • Concepts, thoughts, feelings, meanings, sense, and words 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.

Reddy offers sentences similar to the following as evidence:

  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.


HTML and XHTML are examples of markup languages that can be used by anyone wishing to translate media including video, sound, graphics and text into a language intelligible to a computer and suitable for display on the internet. Originally this required manually typing up an HTML document but there are software programs that will do this now. There are in addition special mark up languages for mathematical and scientific notation such as Tex and LaTeX or one of its many variants.

See also


  • 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.
  • Mathews,P. (1997). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistic. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Reddy, M. J. (1979). The Conduit Metaphor. Metaphor and Thought. A. Ortney. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Ritzer, G. (1991). Metatheorizing in Sociology.

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