What is Metalanguage in English?
This is a question many students ask. They see it on criteria sheets for assessment tasks but never really understand the term or how it is used.
The Answer is:
Metalanguage in English is a language that describes language
One of the key skills required by students in VCE is using ‘appropriate metalanguage to discuss and analyse [your] own and others’ authorial choices’. Metalanguage is simply the words used to describe the language choices authors have made, and the choices you have made about your own writing.
I have put together a list of metalanguage terms with an explanation of each that you might find useful when asked to describe language used in your set texts. Once you read through this list I am sure you will already know many of the terms mentioned below:
Allegory: Simply put, it’s a story in which the characters or incidents symbolise key ideas that are usually ethical. Allegory is usually used to describe longer versions of the ‘fable’ form.
Ambiguity: Double meaning, often used deliberately by authors.
Antagonist: The character who sets himself or herself against the protagonist.
Anti-climax: A sudden ‘descent’ in excitement or effect, sometimes deliberately used by authors.
Audience: The intended readership for this piece of writing. Is it for an adult audience? A specialist audience who would understand the technical terms? A younger audience?
Author: The creator of a text.
Autobiography: The story of a person’s life, usually written by that same person. Sometimes you might talk of a story or novel having ‘autobiographical elements’ – pieces of personal history made into the creative work. Romulus My Father, is autobiographical.
Character: A person in a novel, short story or play. Can be either major or minor characters.
Characterisation: The writer’s skill in creating realistic or effective sounding characters.
Cliché: An over-used or outworn phrase that has lost its effectiveness.
Climax: The point of greatest intensity in a narrative.
Context: The historical, social and cultural environment in which the narrative is set, such as a particular country during a war.
Counterplot: A sub-plot which contrasts with the main plot, often used to add meaning to the main plot.
Crisis Point: A point of significant conflict or tension.
Dialogue: Conversation between characters in a novel or story.
Dramatic conventions: Departures from reality which the audience is used to accepting when watching a play.
Epigraph: A short quote or statement, usually at the start of a book or chapter.
Epilogue: A short final section of a novel or play.
Fable: A short narrative in which some moral truth is shown through a story.
Figurative language: The opposite of literal language, figurative language is the language of imagination, and it makes demands of the reader to understand the meaning.
Flash-back: A very common technique in film, but also in novels where the narrative returns suddenly to an earlier time in the story.
Form: The overall format of your piece of writing: short story, poem, blog entry, film script etc. Each form has a general set of expectations and conventions that have developed over time.
Genre: The ‘kind’ or ‘type’ of writing. The style within the form; ‘detective fiction’, ‘love poetry’. Genres often have certain conventions or expectations which you can follow, or sometimes break with, to great effect. Famous genres include the detective fiction genre, the romance genre and the gothic genre.
Idiom: The natural speech of the person being represented.
Imagery: Images are pictures in words, a common feature of poetry. Similes (‘the moon was sailing across the night sky like a balloon’) and metaphors (‘the moon was a balloon sailing across the night sky’) are typical of how images are constructed.
Indirect speech: The reporting, in a story or novel, of what someone else has said.
Irony: A figure of speech in which the meaning is the opposite of what is spoken.
Jargon: Technical or difficult language specific to a profession or sub-culture.
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two things by stating one as the other.
Monologue: A speech by one person in a play; think of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech.
Montage: A dramatic effect built up by a series of short scenes or impressions, often in apparently random order where the effect is more important than the content of each scene.
Narrative: Simply put: a story. The events occur in the order they appear.
Narrative perspective: The source of the story telling, the way the story is told.
Narrator: The person or ‘voice’ that tells the story.
Orientation: The moment at which the story begins. For example a character has just made a discovery, or a shipwreck survivor has just made it to shore.
Person: The authorial perspective, first person ‘I’, second person ‘you’, or third person ‘she/he/they.
Personification: Giving human qualities to non-human objects such as animals, the sea, the wind, etc.
Plot: The framework of the story and the conscious arrangement of its events.
Point of view: Is this piece of writing told from a particular perspective or from the point of a view of a character with unique views of their own?
Prologue: Literally, a ‘before speech’, a short speech or introduction before the main story begins.
Prose: The opposite of poetry, prose is direct expression without rhyme and with no regular rhythm. Almost all novels are written in prose.
Protagonist: The main character in a narrative.
Pun: A play on words where a word is used in two senses.
Purpose: Often, this might be more about multiple purposes, but revolves around what this piece is trying to do: to persuade, to inform, to record and document, or to make the reader feel something specific?
Register: The variety and scope of language related to a specific type of communication setting, such as a formal register, or in the register of educational discourse.
Resolution: The section in which conflict is resolved.
Rhetorical Question: A question put for effect, that requires no answer, and expects none.
Setting: Where a novel or play takes place, often a real or historical place (the play A Man for All Seasons is set in historical England) but it may be imaginative (Nineteen Eighty- Four is set in an imaginary London of the future).
Stage direction: An instruction or explanation by the playwright as to how the play should be staged, but sometimes more than this to involve a description of the intended mood or a character’s feelings. Arthur Miller uses long and detailed stage directions in The Crucible.
Style: The overall direction and voice of the piece; how the writer says things. It might be in a ‘realistic’ style, an ‘exaggerated’ style, etc.
Structure: The way the elements of the text are arranged. The text may happen chronologically, in parallel or move backwards and forward in time using flash-backs and/or flash-forwards.
Sub-plot: A minor or secondary story underneath the main story, very often paralleling the main story in some way.
Symbolism: The use of something simple and concrete to represent much more complex ideas or concepts. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a glass paperweight comes to symbolize something about the beauty and fragility of the past.
Tense: Is the piece set in the past, present or future? Present tense might be something like, ‘I am walking along the beach. The sun is shining.’
Tone: The sound of a voice at specific moments in the piece of writing. Of course this will change through a piece, but if you are striving for a particular or specific tone at a particular point it might be worth saying so. You will also need to comment on the tone of a piece of writing in your language analysis tasks.
Theme: A major issue running through and explored by the text, such as friendship or growing up.
Tragedy: A representation, often in plays, of a human conflict ending in defeat and suffering, often due to some weakness or flaw in the character of the main tragic ‘hero’.
Turning Point: A point at which decisive change occurs.
Values: Qualities that the author and/or characters believe are important, such as loyalty and integrity.
Voice: The overall sound of the writing.
World View: The author’s overall view of the world as illustrated by the text. For example the author may portray the world and human beings as doomed or capable of improvement or redemption. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, the world view presented is that choices made in life when young often determine people’s future directions and that those choices can be limited by historical context, gender and class.
Use the list above for describing the metalanguage of novels and short stories and how the language constructs meaning for the reader in these texts.
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