Theories of metalanguage have a long and venerable history in a number of traditions, from logic through cognitive science. However in recent years, an exciting new approach to the study of metalanguage – focused upon the issue of metalinguistic awareness – has emerged from empirical research on language pragmatics and metapragmatics. This work moves beyond an older conceptualization of metalanguage as language that talks about language, analyzing in depth how metalanguage also creates, structures, and forms language and ongoing speech. Speakers have varying degrees of awareness of metalanguage as it both refers to and performatively formulates communication. At times, participants explicitly recognize a metalinguistic level that structures their conversation. At other times the structuring role of metalanguage may be partially or completely concealed, operating in subtle ways of which speakers are partially or totally unaware. Even in these instances, speakers’ partial awareness – or even total misunderstanding – of metalanguage can help to shape linguistic interaction. Understandings and misunderstandings of the role of metalanguage may also be regularized in the form of socially-shared ‘linguistic ideologies’. In this paper we outline the implications of the new, empirically-informed approach to metalinguistic awareness, locating this scholarship in relation to work on metalanguage from a number of other traditions.
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