3 such as paralanguage and gestures in discourse) in extended texts or episodes of communication. Meta-discourse refers to the pragmatic use of language to comment reflexively on discourse itself. The prefix “meta” (from a Greek word meaning with, across, or after) here denotes a shift to a higher-order frame of reference. Meta-discourse shifts the focus of attention from ongoing communication, putting some stretch of discourse in a context or frame designed to influence the meaning and practical conduct of communication.
The frame shift performed by meta-discourse is most often local and momentary, as when a speaker uses the word “first” to frame an immediate following point as the first in a series of points, or says “I understand completely” to mark another’s statement as understood and accepted. Extended episodes of meta-talk also occur, for example, when a couple sits down to talk over a problem in how they have been talking with each other. Discourse about discourse-in-general is also meta-discourse. People trading stories about poorly run business meetings or writing newspaper columns about rules of etiquette for the use of mobile phones in public are engaged in meta-discourse with a relatively broad scope. So are scholars writing academic books and articles about media, discourse, and communication. All of these forms of meta-discourse participate in the ubiquitous social processes through which norms and meanings for communication are continually negotiated (Craig 1999, 2005). With a growing cultural emphasis on the importance of communication in modern societies, explicit talk about talk seems to have become increasingly prevalent. A “communication culture” has evolved that “generates large quantities of meta-discourse” (Cameron 2000, viii).
Researchers have identified a wide array of linguistic devices used in meta-discourse. “Discourse markers” are used to indicate relations between segments of discourse (“and,” “because,” “on the other hand”), interpersonal relations (“sorry, but,” “you know,” “as a friend”), and cognitive attitudes toward what is being said (“I mean,” “in a sense,” “certainly”). “Linguistic action verbs” are used to describe the social actions performed in discourse (“she asked,” “don’t threaten me”), and, in some cases, simultaneously to carry out those actions in “performative utterances” (“I promise,” “I tell you”). “Reported speech” (direct or indirect quotation) purports to represent for some present purpose something that was said previously (Lucy 1993, 18 –21). “Indirect reported speech” highlights the effective content of what was said (“Margaret told me that you would be late”), whereas “direct reported speech” highlights the precise way in which something was said (“Margaret told me [the following spoken in mock imitation of Margaret’s voice] ‘Of course, he will be late, as always!’”).
Verschueren described these and many more linguistic devices as indicators of metapragmatic awareness. Insofar as all pragmatic language use involves making linguistic choices more or less consciously, “all verbal communication is self-referential to a certain degree” (1999, 187–188, italics in original). Reflexivity thus being a matter of degree, meta-discourse ranges along a continuum from the relatively blatant verbal framing moves just illustrated to relatively unconscious cues (such as a slightly noticeable word choice, vocal emphasis, or facial expression) in which meta-discourse may be hardly distinguishable from first-level discourse. Some of these subtle framing devices have been described as contextualization cues and it has been noted that they can be highly culturespecific.
Although there are functional similarities in meta-discourse across languages (Verschueren 1989), meta-discourse also reflects communicative forms and speech codes specific to particular cultures. Speech codes comprise systems of concepts, beliefs, and rules of conduct pertaining to communicative practices, personhood, and social relationships. Cultural groups develop metacommunicative vocabularies (Philipsen 1992) that express their speech codes. Although a speech code may not be followed consistently in practice, the meta-communicative vocabulary is used rhetorically in meta-discourse to interpret, evaluate, or justify communicative acts. For example, the declaration that “we need to sit down and talk” about a problem may have a certain rhetorical power for the participants that depends on a specific meaning of “sit down and talk” in a cultural speech code.
Speech codes and meta-communicative vocabularies overlap with the more critically toned concept of language ideologies, “habitual ways of thinking and speaking about language and language use which are rarely challenged within a given community” (Verschueren 1999, 198; see also Jaworski et al. 2004). From this critical standpoint it becomes apparent that cultural speech codes incorporate historically contingent practices, beliefs, and standards of “correctness” that systematically favor more powerful segments of society over others, for example by stereotyping and devaluating the communication of women, lower classes, and immigrant groups.
Academic theory and research on communication, language, and media are forms of meta-discourse. Along with other forms of meta-discourse in mediated, public, and private interaction, academic meta-discourse participates actively in the social construction of communication practices (Craig 1999, 2005). Commonplace normative beliefs about communication – whether regarded as speech codes or language ideologies – provide much of the basis for academic theories (Taylor 1997). Critical scholarship is needed to illuminate, and thus open to contestation, the unreflective cultural assumptions and ideologies at work in all forms of meta-discourse, including academic forms. But communication theory also has a positive role to play as a source of carefully considered, alternative ways of talking about talk that can be useful for addressing practical communication problems.
- Cameron, D. (2000). Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. London: Sage.
- Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9, 119 –161.
- Craig, R. T. (2005). How we talk about how we talk: Communication theory in the public interest. Journal of Communication, 55, 659 – 667.
- Jaworski, A., Coupland, N., & Galasinski, D. (eds.) (2004). Metalanguage: Social and ideological perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Lucy, J. A. (ed.) (1993). Reflexive language: Reported speech and metapragmatics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Philipsen, G. (1992). Speaking culturally: Explorations in social communication. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
- Taylor, T. J. (1997). Theorizing language: Analysis, normativity, rhetoric, history. Amsterdam, New York, and Oxford: Pergamon.
- Verschueren, J. (1989). Language on language: Toward metapragmatic universals. International Pragmatics Association Papers in Pragmatics, 3, 5 –144.
- Verschueren, J. (1999). Understanding pragmatics. London and New York: Arnold.