English & EAL

What is Metalanguage?

Lisa Tran

September 26, 2011

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Updated 26/07/2020

Introduction and Contents

  1. Definition of Metalanguage
  2. Examples of Metalanguage in VCE English
  3. Conclusion

Although it appears on criteria sheets, many students never really understand the term metalanguage. Strangely, it is something that is rarely addressed in classrooms. While the word may be foreign to you, rest assured that metalanguage is not an entirely new concept you have to learn. How come? – because you have been unknowingly using metalanguage since the very beginning of high school.

It's a word that is more and more frequently thrown around as you get more advanced in high school. And it's something that becomes tremendously important in your final year of high school, because the more you include metalanguage discussion in your essays, the more intricate your discussion becomes and the more unique it also becomes.

So, let's find out exactly what is metalanguage.

Definition of Metalanguage

Metalanguage is language that describes language.

So, instead of maybe using the word, "He was sad," we might say something like, "He felt sorrowful." The choices in words changes the meaning that is interpreted by the reader, just slightly, but there is still a difference. So, when it comes to studying texts or reading articles and trying to analyze what the author is trying to do, we look at metalanguage as a way to help give us insight into the ideas that they're trying to portray.

The simplest way to explain this is to focus on part 3 of the English exam – Language Analysis. In Language Analysis, we look at the author’s writing and label particular phrases with persuasive techniques such as: symbolism, imagery or personification. Through our description of the way an author writes (via the words ‘symbolism’, ‘imagery’ or ‘personification’), we have effectively used language that describes language.

Now, if we look at the bigger picture, our analysis of an author’s language can be applied to Text Response, and even Reading and Comparing. To learn more about why metalanguage is important in Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response. Otherwise, for those interested in Comparative, head over to our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.

Examples of Metalanguage in VCE English

Novel

  • Tone
  • Narrator
  • Grammar and punctuation
  • Characterisation
  • Foreshadowing

For example

  • Achilles is characterised as a foetus, for his position is ‘chin down, shoulders hunched’ as though he is inside a womb. (Ransom, David Malouf)
  • In the first scene of All About Eve, Mankiewicz foreshadows Eve's sinful and regretful actions as a sorrowful expression is emphasized, as she accepts her award.

As you can see, the word 'foreshadows' pushes us in a new direction. Rather than just saying what has already happened or telling your teacher or examiner something that they already know, it forces you to actually analyze what's in front of you and to offer your own unique interpretation of why this metalanguage or why this technique has been used.

Film

  • Mise-en-scene
  • Camera angles
  • Music
  • Lighting

For example

When Terry leaves Friendly’s bar, the thick fog symbolises his clouded moral judgement as he decides whether he should remain ‘D and D’, or become a ‘rat’. (On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan)

Play

  • Stage direction
  • Soliloquy
  • Monologue
  • Prop
  • Motifs

For example

  • The miniature set Zac creates is designed with a white backdrop, symbolising his desire to wipe away reality since he ‘can’t stand real things.’ (Cosi, Louis Nowra)
  • In Medea, Euripides commonly refers to animals when describing the day's actions and temperament versus in Medea, the motif of animals emphasizes the inhuman and bestial nature of Medea, highlighting how she defies natural norms.

This student has actually given us an analysis of why animal motifs are used. And that is to highlight how Medea defies natural norms, because of her inhuman and bestial nature.

Conclusion

As indicated earlier, you should be familiar with many, if not all the terms mentioned above. Take note that some metalanguage terms are specific to a writing form, such as camera angle for films. As you discuss themes or characters, you should try and weave metalanguage throughout your body paragraphs. The purpose of this criteria is to demonstrate your ability to understand how the author uses language to communicate his or her meaning. The key is to remember that the author’s words or phrases are always chosen with a particular intention – it is your job to investigate why the author has written a text in a particular way.

[Video Transcription]

Hey guys, welcome back to Lisa's Study Guides. Today, I'm really excited to talk to you about metalanguage. Have you guys ever heard of metalanguage before? It's a word that is more and more frequently thrown around as you get more advanced in high school. And it's something that becomes tremendously important in your final year of high school, because the more you include metalanguage discussion in your essays, the more intricate your discussion becomes and the more unique it also becomes. So, let's find out exactly what is metalanguage.

Simply put, metalanguage just means language that analyzes language. So, when authors write anything, we make certain decisions when it comes to writing. So, instead of maybe using the word, "He was sad," we might say something like, "He felt sorrowful." The choices in words changes the meaning that is interpreted by the reader, just slightly, but there is still a difference. So, when it comes to studying texts or reading articles and trying to analyze what the author is trying to do, we look at metalanguage as a way to help give us insight into the ideas that they're trying to portray. Metalanguage comes in really handy, especially if you're somebody who struggles with retelling the story. And I have a video on how to avoid retelling the story, which I'll chuck up in a card above.

But metalanguage essentially takes you to the next level. It prevents you from just saying what happened and actually looking at how the ideas and themes are developed by the author, through the words that they choose to use. So, let's have a look at a couple of examples to give you a better idea. I'm going to show you two examples. One uses metalanguage and one doesn't and you'll see how a massive difference in how the student understands the text is really clear. Number one, foreshadowing. In the first scene of All About Eve, Mankiewicz emphasizes Eve's sorrowful expression as she accepts her award. In the first scene of All About Eve, Mankiewicz foreshadows Eve's sinful and regretful actions as a sorrowful expression is emphasized, as she accepts her award.

As you can see, as soon as we put in the word foreshadows, it pushes us in a new direction. Rather than just saying what has already happened or telling your teacher or examiner something that they already know, it forces you to actually analyze what's in front of you and to offer your own unique interpretation of why this metalanguage or why this technique has been used. So, in this case, it's foreshadowing.

Let's have a look at another one, motif. In Medea, Euripides commonly refers to animals when Medea's actions and temperament versus in Medea, the motif of animals emphasizes the inhuman and bestial nature of Medea, highlighting how she defies natural norms. See how, in the first example, it was really just telling you what we might already know through just reading the book. But when it comes to the second example, this student has actually given us an analysis of why animal motifs are used. And that is to highlight how Medea defies natural norms, because of her inhuman and bestial nature.

So, those are some examples of metalanguage. There are so many more different types of metalanguage out there that I have a blog that I will link in the description below, which I would highly recommend you check out because it goes into more examples, but also there are lists of metalanguage that you can choose from when analyzing your books or your films. I'll also link a couple of other videos down there that are relevant to this video about metalanguage so you can get a better understanding of it through some of the other YouTube videos that I have done.

And one more really exciting thing, for all of you who live in Melbourne, I'll be at the VCE Korea's Expo this coming Thursday through to Sunday. So, it's four days, from the fourth to the seventh. I'll be there the entire time. So, if you're going, and if you weren't planning to go, now you have a reason to go, then please come and visit me on Level 1, Booth 128. I'll be there and I'll be selling our Ultimate VCE English Study Guide Bundle, which is on a massive discount. And I've never discounted it this much before, and I won't be doing it again. So, it will be $50 for the bundle. Bring cash with you or your credit card. Please don't be shy and say, "Hi." Come check out the books. Let's take some photos together. And hopefully, I'll have time to offer you some English advice while you're there. I'll see you guys at the expo for all you Melbournians. And remember to always study smarter, not harder.

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Did you know how to identify metalanguage-based essay topics?

If you want to know:

- how to incorporate metalanguage into your essay

- what metalanguage you can use in your essay

Then you're not alone! Learn to confidently identify metalanguage and use it in your next essay. Check out a sample of LSG's How To Write A Killer Text Response.

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