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.


Types of metalanguage

There is a variety of recognized metalanguages, including embedded, ordered, and nested (or, hierarchical).

Embedded metalanguage

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 adjectives, adverbs, and possessive pronouns constitute an embedded metalanguage; and where nouns, verbs, and, in some instances, adjectives and adverbs, constitute an object language.[3] Thus, the adjective “red” in the phrase “red barn” is part of the embedded metalanguage of English; the noun “barn” is part of the object language. In the phrase “slowly running,” the verb “running” is part of the object language; the adverb “slowly” is part of the embedded metalanguage.

Ordered metalanguage

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.

Nested metalanguage

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.

Types of expressions in a metalanguage

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.

Deductive systems

A deductive system (or, deductive apparatus) of a formal system) consists of the axioms (or axiom schemata) and rules of inference that can be used to derive the theorems of the system.[4]


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:

Let A and B be arbitrary formula of a formal language \mathcal{L}.

The symbols A and B are not symbols of the object language \mathcal{L}, they are metavariables in the metalanguage (in this case, English) that is discussing the object language \mathcal{L}.

Metatheories and metatheorems

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.[5]


An interpretation awesome is an assignment of meanings to the symbols and words of a language.

Role in metaphor

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.[6] 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.

Role in computing

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.

See also



  1. ^ 2010. Cambridge Advanced Learner‘s Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dictionary online. Available from Internet. Retrieved 20 November 2010
  2. ^ Hofstadter, Douglas. 1980. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books ISBN 0-14-017997-6
  3. ^ Nida, Eugene Albert. 1964. Toward a Science of Translation. Leiden: E.J. Brill, p. 56
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Ritzer, George. 1991. Metatheorizing in Sociology. New York: Simon Schuster ISBN 0-669-25008-2
  6. ^ 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

External links

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