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Encyclopedia > Metalanguage

In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about other languages (object languages). 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. Logic, from Classical Greek λόγος logos (the word), is the study of the principles and criteria of valid inference and demonstration. ... Linguistics is the scientific study of language. ... For an account of the concept of object language in mathematical logic, see formal system. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with Generative linguistics. ... Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of language. ...

An example would be rendering an utterance in logic e.g. "John smokes" can be written as S(j), where S=smokes and j=john.



There is 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 metalanguage, and the adverb 'slowly' is part of the object language. Douglas Richard Hofstadter (born February 15, 1945) is an American academic. ... GEB cover Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (commonly GEB) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Hofstadter, published in 1979 by Basic Books. ...

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. Noncommutative logic is the name given to a family of substructural logics in which the exchange rule is inadmissible. ...

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. Since the late 1800s, the word paradigm (IPA: ) has referred to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. ... Scientific classification or biological classification is a method by which biologists group and categorize species of organisms. ...

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: In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about other languages (object languages). ...

  • 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 are not intelligent like humans and therefore do not get the gist of an idea as a person would. Computers follow programmes 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 to metalanguages as they only describe how a document should be presented and not the syntax of a computer programming language. XML is the metalanguage used to describe to XHTML just as SGML is used to describe HTML. XHTML is much stricter than HTML, for example XHTML is case sensitive unlike HTML.
XML is used to describe other document types such as "OpenDocument Text" which is the native format for the word processor application in OpenOffice.org. Many other metalanguages have been based on the W3C XML 1.0 standard, including: A programming language is an artificial language that can be used to control the behavior of a machine, particularly a computer. ... The Backus–Naur form (also known as BNF, the Backus–Naur formalism, Backus normal form, or Panini–Backus Form) is a metasyntax used to express context-free grammars: that is, a formal way to describe formal languages. ... HTML, short for HyperText Markup Language, is the predominant markup language for the creation of web pages. ... The Extensible HyperText Markup Language, or XHTML, is a markup language that has the same depth of expression as HTML, but a stricter syntax. ... A specialized markup language using SGML is used to write the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary. ... A screenshot of a web page. ... In computer and machine-based telecommunications terminology, a character is a unit of information that roughly corresponds to a grapheme or a grapheme-like unit or symbol, such as in an alphabet or syllabary in the written form of a natural language. ... As a noun, a graphic usually refers to a computer image or picture, or an infographic, such as a chart. ... Sound is a disturbance of mechanical energy that propagates through matter as a longitudinal wave. ... Video (Latin for I see, first person singular present, indicative of videre, to see) is the technology of electronically capturing, recording, processing, storing, transmitting, and reconstructing a sequence of still images representing scenes in motion. ... For other uses, see Syntax (disambiguation). ... The Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a W3C-recommended general-purpose markup language that supports a wide variety of applications. ... The Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) is a metalanguage in which one can define markup languages for documents. ... Text sometimes exhibits case sensitivity, that is, words can differ in meaning based on the differing use of uppercase and lowercase letters. ... OpenDocument or ODF, short for the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, is a document file format used for exchanging electronic documents such as memos, reports, books, spreadsheets, charts, and presentations. ... A word processor (also more formally known as a document preparation system) is a computer application used for the production (including composition, editing, formatting, and possibly printing) of any sort of viewable or printed material. ... OpenOffice. ...

There are in addition special mark up languages for mathematical and scientific notation such as Tex and LaTeX or one of its many variants. XQuery is a query language (with some programming language features) that is designed to query collections of XML data. ... The XML Linking Language, or XLink, is an XML markup language used for creating hyperlinks within XML documents. ... Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is an XML markup language for describing two-dimensional vector graphics, both static and animated, and either declarative or scripted. ... SMIL can stand for Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language The Swedish SMIL computer (its acronymic name standing for Siffermaskinen i Lund), a copy of the BESK computer The Sound and Moving Image Library located at York University, Toronto, Canada. ... TeX (IPA: as in Greek, often in English; written with a lowercase e in imitation of the logo) is a typesetting system created by Donald Knuth. ... The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX LATEX, written as LaTeX in plain text, is a document markup language and document preparation system for the TeX typesetting program. ...

See also

In logic and mathematics, a formal system consists of two components, a formal language plus a set of inference rules or transformation rules. ... Paralanguage refers to the non-verbal elements of communication used to modify meaning and convey emotion. ... The use-mention distinction is the distinction between using a word (or phrase, ) and mentioning it. ... A metatheory is a theory which concerns itself with another theory, or theories. ... Metaphilosophy or meta-philosophy is the study of the subject, matter, methods and aims of philosophy, see also meta-. It is the philosophy of philosophy. Many people consider the recursive study of philosophy to be a part of any philosophical enterprise because it is intertwined with all branches of philosophy... Look up metafiction in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... In philosophy, ethics is commonly divided into two branches, normative ethics and meta-ethics. ... In mathematics, category theory deals in an abstract way with mathematical structures and relationships between them. ... The Ouroboros, a snake which consumes itself, is a symbol for self-reference. ... The OPN Logo Object Process Network (OPN) [Koo 2005] is a domain-neutral, executable meta-language designed to represent, generate, and manipulate simulation models. ... Metagraphics or post-writing, encompassing all the means of ideographic, lexical and phonetic notation, supplements the means of expression based on sound by adding a specifically plastic dimension, a visual facet which is irreducible and escapes oral labelling. ...


  • 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, M. J. (1979). The Conduit Metaphor. Metaphor and Thought. A. Ortony. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Ritzer, G. (1991). Metatheorizing in Sociology.

J. A. Cuddon (June 2, 1928 – March 12, 1996), was an erudite English author, dictionary writer, and school teacher. ...

External links

  • Metalanguage
  • Michael J. Reddy

  Results from FactBites:
Metalanguage - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (735 words)
Metalanguage in linguistics is language used to make statements about language (the 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.
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.
  More results at FactBites »



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