Linguistic Terms

Metalanguage and its Characteristics

Metalanguage with its descriptions

Metalanguage and its Characteristics

Metalanguage is the language used to describe, enunciate or analyze the language .

In logic and linguistics, metalanguage is used to analyze and structure the logical problems posed by semantic paradoxes in the language used to describe objects.

Metalanguage is also defined as the specialized language to describe a natural linguistic system or other language considered the object of analysis. This is especially evident in learning a new language such as “the word language means ‘language’ in English.”

Expressions in metalanguage are often distinguished from object-language through the use of italics, quotation marks or separate online writing, although it is not always expressed in that way.

The British author Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) defined the theory of the hierarchy of languages ​​on two levels:

  • Language-object level : used to refer to objects such as “are people”.
  • Metalinguistic or metalanguage level : it is the language used to define the previous level, for example, in the phrase “immigrants are people”, “immigrants” are at the level of metalanguage.

On the other hand, the Polish author Alfred Tarski (1901-1983) defines metalanguage as the solution for semantic paradoxes stating that “it is necessary to speak the truth about language from a different language called metalanguage.”

Some examples of metalanguage are grammatical language, lexicographic language, logical language, children’s language, technical language, computer language, among others.

In linguistics, six uses or functions are distinguished in language, one of them being the metalinguistic function, which uses metalanguage to speak the language itself. For example: “Metalanguage is a language.”

Metalanguage characteristics

Metalanguage has specific characteristics that help a better understanding of the message due to the logical complexity that it supports. Alfred Tarski defines some essential characteristics for a language to be considered metalanguage:

  • Metalanguage defines a language using a different language.
  • The metalanguage must be richer than the object language, since it describes its sentences and its syntax.
  • Metalanguage is understood within set theory and binary logic.
  • The metalanguage must be a copy of the object language so that what can be said with it, can also be expressed by the metalanguage.

Types of metalanguage

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

Embedded Metalanguage

An embedded metalanguage is a formal language , fixed naturally and firmly in an object language. This idea is found in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal and Gracious Loop or Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid by Douglas Hofstadter , whose central theme is how the creative achievements of the logical Kurt Gödel interact with the artist Maurits Cornelis Escher and composer Johann Sebastian Bach and whose use of formal language makes so many turns and games that he remembers the theory of numbers: “. So it is in the nature of the formalization of number theory that its metalanguage is embedded inside of her. “

It occurs in natural or informal languages, such as in English , where descriptors, that is, adjectives , adverbs and possessive pronouns , constitute an integrated metalanguage, and where nouns , verbs and, in some cases, adjectives and adverbs , constitute a target language. Therefore, the adjective “red” in the phrase “red barn” is part of the built-in meta-language of English, the noun “barn” is part of the target language. In the phrase “little by little to run”, the verb “to run” is part of the target language, the adverb “slowly”

Metalanguage Order

An ordered metalanguage is analogous to ordered logic. An example of an ordered metalanguage is the construction of a metalanguage to speak an object language, followed by the creation of another metalanguage to discuss the first, etc.

Nested metalanguage

A nested metalanguage is similar to an ordered metalanguage in that each level represents a greater degree of abstraction. However, a nested metalanguage differs from an order in that each level includes the one below. The paradigmatic example of a nested metalanguage comes from the Linnaean taxonomic system in biology. Each level in the system incorporates the one below. The language used to discuss gender is also used to examine species; The one used to discuss orders is also used to discuss genders, etc., even kingdoms.

The use of metalanguages

On many occasions we use this resource with which, if you are not aware, you can make interpretation errors.

Already in the grammar, a distinction is made between use and mention.

Bisílaba is all that word that has two syllables. But ‘bisílaba’ [3] is not bisílaba. In this case, ‘bisílaba’ refers to the word itself, not to its object meaning, that is, to a word bisílaba.

Every language has an object to which it addresses or refers. It is the “object language.”

Every language that has as its object a language is a “metalanguage”, which in turn can be the language that is the object of another higher order metalanguage, and so on.

Consider the different references of the following sentence: “Antonio says that Luis said that Maria Luisa said that …”

“Antonio said he went to the movies yesterday.” Note that this statement does not give us information about whether or not Antonio went to the cinema yesterday.

Not taking into account that distinction that speaks of the reality of the fact: “Antonio said” and the language (metalanguage) about what Antonio said: “who went to the movies yesterday” lends itself to interpretative confusion.

Computer metalanguage

Computer metalanguage is used to describe program chains accurately. In 1950, in the field of computing, there are two types of problems for the composition of computer programs:

  1. The lack of the design of a mathematical language to express an algorithm.
  2. The inability to translate programs into computer code.

The first problem was solved thanks to the creation of the discipline of computer program design, and the second question was solved thanks to the generation of compilers that are defined as a metalanguage, being a program that reads a program.


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