Metalinguistic tasks

In a recent One Big Happy, Ruthie’s father tries to get her to play with tongue twisters, but she treats the texts as stories about events in a real world:

Playing with tongue-twister texts is metalinguistic behavior, an activity in which bits of language are treated as objects in themselves, rather than being used to report, inquire, exclaim, instruct, etc. Small children (as above) and people in nonliterate societies are known for sometimes resisting metalinguistic talk of various kinds, instead confining themselves to concrete talk — what I’ll call planolinguistic talk (suggesting ‘flatly linguistic’, rather than ‘beyond and above’ language).

Now, there are many kinds of metalinguistic behavior — among them, correcting people’s grammar, assessing the acceptability of expressions, offering synonyms and antonyms, explicitly describing aspects of language structure and use, and more — and they don’t necessarily run together, nor are the behaviors of young children and nonliterate adults identical in detail. What unites these various phenomena is the task of learning to talk about language, not just in language: everyone manages this in certain ways, but some have not yet completed the task, and others never master some sub-tasks.

I spoke of nonliterate people above, though in fact quite astonishing metalinguistic systems can be created in oral cultures. Literacy is important, but probably the driving phenomenon is explicit instruction in linguistic matters, whether achieved through oral traditions or through formal schooling — but formal schooling for literacy requires treating language as an object in itself, so it’s a powerful force for developing certain kinds of metalinguistic abilities.

One of these abilities is explicitly judging decontextualized expressions as to acceptability, correctness, conveyed meaning, social distribution, and the like. A common experience for linguists and anthropologists working with non-literate peoples is that one common form of work with a native consultant — asking people about the properties of isolated expressions, or asking them to compare two or more expressions as to their properties — runs aground when the consultant says that they can’t answer such questions because they don’t know the people or places referred to in the expressions, so they can’t judge. They’re ready to assess the truth of sentences, but struggle with assessing acceptability, grammaticality, correctness, whatever in the metalinguistic domain.

Similarly for young children faced with corrections about what they say: their concern is most often with truth, not linguistic form — a phenomenon that comes up in One Big Happy strips with some frequency. For example, with JamesĀ resisting correction by Ruthie, sticking to issues of fact rather than grammar, in a posting from 5/28/14, and similarly in a 1/19/17 posting.

Note that in the earlier examples it’s Ruthie the little kid who’s doing the correcting, performing metalinguistically, while in the strip above it’s Ruthie who’s failing to treat a text as an object and is insisting on treating it planolinguistically, as a story about some real chimps and cheap chop suey. Like I said, there are many kinds of metalinguistic behavior, and they don’t necessarily run together.

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