Fifty Years Ago in Etc. (Retrospect)

ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Fifty Years Ago in Etc. (Retrospect)


The term "metalinguistics" was devised to cover aspects of linguistic science dealing with the relation of linguistic behavior (language) to other human behavior.

It presupposes the thorough formal analysis of a language -- the microlinguistic analysis of its structure. Metalinguistics is dependent upon the existence of this and similarly thorough analyses of such phases of human behavior as patterning in movements, material objects and their uses, philosophical orientation, relations between persons, etc.

Like language, all of these constitute systems of learned and patterned behavior (including the products of behavior), and comprise what anthropologists call the totality of culture. For each society, the total culture and all its subdivisions must be analyzed as closed systems, having no necessary resemblance to or connection with those of any other society.

As yet, metalinguistics is a field whose study is only begun; this is because only now has microlinguistics reached a point where it can furnish complete enough descriptions of languages to establish definite limits between micro- and metalinguistics. Microlinguistics concerns itself only with differential meaning, that is, whether utterance fractions are the same or different. Metalinguistics, however, which may be described as the study of what people talk (or write) about and why, and how they react to it, is concerned with meaning on all levels. Where microlinguistics stops with the consideration of the structure of the sentence, metalinguistics deals also with the organization of sentences into discourse and the relation of the discourse to the rest of the culture.

Whorf anticipated an important phase of metalinguistics -- the analysis of the interrelationships of linguistic structure and those other structurings of experience expressed in language which may be called the world-view of the speakers of a language. It must be realized that the speakers of a language, as members of one culture, are unaware that their system of logic is not "natural" or universal, but is principally the result of this sort of interaction.


Students of general semantics who had the privilege of attending the late Alfred Korzybski's lectures and seminars will recall that he urged upon his hearers the reading of material -- especially articles by Benjamin Lee Whorf -- which today constitutes some of the basic literature of what is here called metalinguistics. Korzybski made available to his students reprints of Whorf's articles, and it was due to his influence that Whorf's essay, "Science and Linguistics," was included as a supplementary reading in Hayakawa's Language in Action (1941) and that "Languages and Logic" was included in Lee's anthology, The Language of Wisdom and Folly (1949). The reasons for Korzybski's interest in the comparative study of the structures of different languages are indicated in such passages as the following from his Science and Sanity (1933):

That languages, as such, all have some structure or other is a new and, perhaps, unexpected notion. Moreover, every language having a structure, by the very nature of language, reflects in its own structure the world as assumed by those who evolved the language. In other words, we read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use (pp.59-60).

For no "facts" are ever free from "doctrines": so whoever fancies he can free himself from "doctrines," as expressed in the structure of the language he uses, simply cherishes a delusion, usually with strong affective components (p.87).

We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of semantic reaction and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses on us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us (p. …

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