Metalanguage: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kenyada McLeod

Kenyada teaches software application, web design and student development courses at a local community college.

In this lesson, we will analyze and define the term metalanguage. We will also look over a few examples, explore the connection between metalanguage and computer science and, lastly, complete a brief quiz.

Understanding Metalanguage: Breaking Down the Term

In computer programming and data management, there are many rules and methods by which data can be described and manipulated. These come together to form a metalanguage, which can be simply defined as a language used to discuss another language, or information about a language. Let's explore the prefix 'meta' to better understand this.

With a Greek origin, the 'meta' prefix generally means about, higher or beyond. Consider the word 'metaphysical'. This term focuses not only on the physical qualities or characteristics of life, but on those characteristics or qualities that go beyond one's physical life, existence or presence. In essence, life is viewed from a higher, more abstract or general perspective.

Let's consider a more common term like 'metamorphosis'. Think back to grammar school when you learned about how the caterpillar became a butterfly. Did you know that 'morphosis' is a standalone word that is defined as the way in which an organism changes? Well, the caterpillar did not make a simple change. The caterpillar went beyond a simple change and became a completely different organism - hence the term 'metamorphosis.'

Adding the prefix 'meta' to a word alters its definition to denote something higher or beyond the base word. As such, metalanguage goes beyond the actual language and forces you to view it from a higher level.

Metalanguage and Computer Science

There are a variety of computer programming languages, each with a unique collection of rules (also called syntax). The web programming language, HTML, uses 'metadata~.' How would you define metadata? Applying the same method for defining metalanguage, we can deduce that metadata is data about data.

The 'meta' element in HTML provides information about a web page such as keywords, author and description - all of which are retrieved from Internet search engines. This metadata is not displayed on the page, but provides a bit of background information 'about' the page. This information is not displayed on the page, but is used by other tools as a reference. Let's focus on keywords.

HTML meta element
HTML meta element

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