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Meta-language 101: What is it? How does it help?

Apr 17, 2020

Meta-language is both the most difficult part of grammar and the most useful.  To help you begin, here’s a bit about meta-language.

First, what are you talking about? What is meta-language?

Meta-language is language about language.

Basically, meta-language is the kind of language we use to talk about elements of language.  Maybe you’ve heard words like noun, verb, adjective, clause, — even words like sentence, punctuation, pronunciation. That’s all meta-language: language about language.

Alright. So what?  How’s it helpful?

Learning meta-language allows you to classify the things you’re learning into categories.  You don’t just learn words; maybe you learn adjectives to describe the weather, like sunny, windy, rainy, dry, or foggy. Knowing that those are adjectives will help you categorize your vocabulary into what we call ‘lexical sets’ — word sets. More than that, though, meta-language is the most difficult and the most useful tool for language learners there is.  Why?  For one, meta-language is not about one sentence or even one language, so learning metalanguage applies to all languages.  Instead of dealing with individual words, dealing with classes of words helps make learning more fundamental — and thus more widely useful.

Consider these two bits of metalanguage: subject and verb.  In English, this is the basis of any sentence.  Something (subject) does something (object):  I am, You go, Jesus wept, Potatoes rot. It’s the basis of all sentences. Anyway, learning meta-language means that you can classify words by their grammatical function.  Nouns are people, places, things, or ideas like Boris Johnson, Paris, Groundhogs, or Perfectionism. Those are the things we talk about — we make connections between them, describe them, tell stories about what they do, etc.  This way, you can see how language (any language) functions.

How do I go about learning this meta-language?

Well, that’ll be the topic of this series of blog posts.  Stay tuned.


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