Review: Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 24 12:58:41 UTC 2005

Forwarded from  LINGUIST List 16.1939

Thu Jun 23 2005

Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives
From: Elizabeth Specker <>

EDITORS: Jaworski, Adam; Coupland, Nikolas; Galasinski, Dariusz

SERIES: Language, power and Social Process 11
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Elizabeth Specker, University of Arizona,
Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, doctoral student

Jaworski, Coupland and Galasinksi have presented a group of articles aimed
at covering the vastness of the emerging metalanguage field.  The included
chapters range from theoretical articles about metalanguage and what it
encompasses as well as evidence of metacommunication in actual
environments and texts. The book is divided into four parts along basic
divisions of content: approaches and theories related to metalanguage, its
role in the ideological realm, social evaluation using metalanguage, and
stylisation through metalanguage. While each section serves to show the
vastness of metacommunication in the construction of the social human, it
also ties together the different applications and perceptions using meta
by first explaining the evolution of metalanguage as a term and concept,
and then expanding it to show how it is so much more than merely "language
to talk about language". For instance, many of the chapters overlap in
their use of semiotic themes, stylization as metacommunication or folk
linguistics as social evaluation.


The chapters in Part 1 cover different yet overlapping aspects of the
concept of metalanguage in sociolinguistic research.

Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski give an overview of metalanguage in all
of its complexities in their chapter "Sociolinguistic perspectives on
metalanguage: Reflexivity, evaluation and ideology", effectively covering
the broad history and perspectives of sociolinguistics regarding
metalanguage and social evaluation.  Touching upon many of the topics that
the following chapters elaborate upon and not delving too deep into any
one aspect, the chapter serves as a reference for further reading (see the
extensive reference pages).

Jef Verschueren, in "Notes on the role of metapragmatic awareness in
language use", starts off on solid ground with a Jakobsonian perspective
of metalinguistic usage (using code / message relationships). The author
then differentiates metalanguage as an object versus as a dimension, as
explicit versus implicit metalanguage and then attempts to present
different aspects of metapragmatic awareness. Noting himself that this
chapter is labeled as 'notes', it seems just that: a text which seems to
cover many aspects, with some sections more salient than others.

The third chapter of part 1, "Folk metalanguage" by Dennis Preston, aptly
describes and explains the presence of metalanguage usage by everyone -
specifically linguistically naive people. In an interesting presentation,
Preston divides 'metalanguage' into three distinctions encompassing a
surface interpretation of the similarities and dialectical differences
noticed and used by people, a standard interpretation of the language used
about language, and a third division about the beliefs of the differences
between speech communities, or the shared folk knowledge about language.
He calls for a more content-oriented discourse analysis in order to get at
the cognitive models that the 'folk' use in reasoning about language.

In Part 2, the editors have collected chapters centered on 'meta' and
ideology, often dealing with the multiple layers involved in metalanguage.
In Theo van Leeuwen's article, "Metalanguage in social life", three texts
involving political interviews are analyzed. How the authors, linguists
themselves, use language to refer to their texts and in their analysis of
the interviews are compared. This includes the different uses of metaphors
and references to the agents/patients, showing that the analytic
background of the author affects the metalanguage used to describe the
text. While the descriptions and the analysis of the texts are
interesting, the tables are not intuitive.

Dariusz Galasinski brings the press to the ideological forefront as he
analyzes transcripts of an interview with Princess Diana. He sections his
article into ways in which the press constructs Diana through word choice.
As the press constructs Diana, in the headlines as well as how she is
positioned and quoted, or misquoted, Galasinski illustrates how the
metalanguage of the press disambiguates Diana, gives her power, and yet
positions her as an outsider of the Royal Family. His text gives
explanations and examples from the interview transcripts that aptly
provide the evidence needed to show ideological construction through the
use of metalanguage.

"Lying, politics and the metalinguistics of truth", by John Wilson, is a
nice compliment to the previous chapters. Wilson takes the reader through
the somewhat confusing logic of what is 'truthfulness', and does so with
illustrations and anecdotes that, by the end, come together to
differentiate between a 'lie' and 'deception'. His humorous style
compliments the seriousness of the topic, however, as the examples include
Prime Minister John Major, Sir Peter Mayhew, and even President Bill

Part 3 deals with metalanguage and social evaluation, a topic which pushes
sociolinguistics into the metalinguistic field. In the first chapter,
"Social meaning and norm-ideals in the study of language variation and
change", Tore Kristiansen explores participants' linguistic
self-evaluation in comparison to norm-ideals of three dialects in Denmark
by conducting group interviews and then selecting two participants for
further individual interviews. He acknowledges that while many
sociolinguists abstain from including metacommunicative data in their
studies, his study is conducted in order to obtain this data which
supports and supplements data collected about language variation.

Peter Garrett, Nikolas Coupland and Angie Williams look at the choices of
words that teenagers use in evaluating one another in "Adolescents'
lexical repertoires of peer evaluation: Boring prats and English snobs".
Taking their analysis from their preliminary research of finding keywords
that are intended to be used in semantic differential scales, the authors
are provided with a rich source of insight about how Welsh teens comment
on language variation and in turn metalinguistically make social
evaluations. The authors acknowledge that there are confounding variables
in the responses, such as whether the teens are commenting about the
quality of their peers' narratives or about the narrator's dialect.

The third chapter of part 3, "Teachers' beliefs about students' talk and
silence: Constructing academic success and failure through metapragmatic
comments", is also centered on teens; however it focuses on the
metalanguage and evaluation of silence in the classroom as it is
translated by teachers in reference letters. Adam Jaworski and Itesh
Sachdev analyze 178 teachers' references for distinctions between 'good'
and 'poor' communication skills, finding discrepancies between references
made by female and male referees about talk and silence in regards to the
gender of the student. Talk and silence seemed to be metapragmatically
viewed as different qualities depending on gender. The authors open up
interesting questions about the amount of speaking in class and academic
achievement and call for critical language awareness to be part of teacher

Part 4 deals with stylization and metalanguage: all three chapters involve
pop culture and the multimodal metadiscourse that the audience, or the
"shoppers", must use to decode the messages.  In "Stylised deception"
Nikolas Coupland uses segments of the 1950s sitcom 'Sergeant Bilko' as
texts to analyze for the metalingual use of stylization, or a parodic
reframing of the current situation which labels or identifies it as a
display. In this text, Sergeant Bilko uses stylized deception to indicate
to the audience that there is indeed deception going on (while the
characters in the scene are oblivious to the deception). In an interesting
presentation, Coupland breaks down 'stylization' and 'leakage' into
possible sociolinguistic motivations for them, and then, along with
example scenes from the sitcom and from actual studies of social groups,
applies possible sociolinguistic reasons for them.

Ulrike Hanna Meinhof presents the reader with further examples of parody
and stylization in her article, "Metadiscourses of culture in British TV
commercials". She uses these metadiscourses to pull apart the
representations of 'foreignness' at different levels in humorous TV ads,
including characterization, parody, metasemiotic and cultural
representations. Showing that it is in-group semiotic competence that
makes the references in the commercial understandable, Meinhof's chapter
pulls in Coupland's distinction between style and stylization, giving it
further definition with her examples.

Kay Richardson follows up the multimodality of metalanguage and
stylization, although she focuses on a British chain store and its
consumers, in "Retroshopping: Sentiment, sensation and symbolism on the
high street". Through the metasemiotic layerings of meanings of objects,
Richardson details the language used by the store to create the mystique
and individuality needed to sell its objects.


Overall, this is a very nice assembly of texts that covers a wide range of
issues regarding metalanguage and its multifaceted aspects. While a
footnote or two about a few of the euro-centered references might have
helped those outside the realm of the BBC (i.e. "Harry Enfield and Chums"
television show), I'm glad that I had a friend from England to help out
with some of the "meta"-cultural references. Also, I'm disappointed by the
proofing of the book as a whole; one of the main problems concerned the
inclusion of figures and examples that weren't mentioned or referred to in
the texts of more than one chapter. A secondary oversight of citations not
included, or incorrect, on the reference pages in various chapters also
rubbed the wrong way. Each chapter has its merits, and I recommend just
about every one for anyone interested in language - language used in just
about every way. However, the book, because it is a collection that covers
such a broad array of views and applications of metalanguage, may leave
the reader wondering what IS metalanguage actually. It seems like
everything, and as Deborah Cameron comments at the end, metacommunication,
metapragmatics and metasemiotics can also be used depending on the 'texts'
that one is analyzing.


Elizabeth Specker is a doctoral student in Second Language
Acquisition and Teaching, University of Arizona. Her major research
interests include using media as a learning tool, discourse analysis,
formulaic utterances and multilingualism.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list