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Meta, Hamlet, Jerk

Meta is a Greek term which in English suggests, apparently on the basis of a misunderstanding of the etymology of the word ‘metaphysics’, going beyond or above a particular domain—See metafiction for a similar use of the prefix. Metalanguage accordingly is a language which discusses language. A dictionary, for example, is almost all metalanguage in relation to the words it defines; descriptive grammar is another metalanguage. More generally, criticism is often taken to be a metalanguage with respect to the texts it addresses, and it is of course possible for literary works to contain their own metalanguage, to look at themselves as if in a mirror. This occurs in Hamlet, for instance, when the prince compares his situation to that of the actors, thereby reminding an audience that they are watching (at least) two plays: one representing a fictional life in Elsinore, one taking place now, wherever the work is staged. Hamlet's speech to the players is both language (within the play) and metalanguage (about the play). Roman Jakobson (see formalism) reminds us that ordinary speech is full of metalanguage in the form of hints and explanations: ‘Do you understand what I am saying?’; ‘What I really meant was …’; ‘Jerk is a slang expression for …’. These phrases point indirectly to the meaning of a conversation and directly to its articulation; they clarify the way the language works.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: McTeague to Nancy [Freeman] Mitford Biography