By Kamil Wiśniewski, July, 31st, 2007
Using a language as a primary means of communicating our thoughts is so natural for many people that it is often difficult to realize what in fact are language functions. Some of the roles of language are so mundane that they are hardly ever noticed, others are very elevated, or even abstract. Due to their diversity the functions of language might be divided into two categories: micro functions which refer to specific individual uses, and macro functions which serve more overall aims.
- Physiological function (releasing physical and nervous energy)
Although it might be striking this use of language is fairly common. It is easily recognizable when devoted fans of sports are observed while watching their favourite discipline on TV. Such fans often shout instructions, express support, or disappointment and while as a means of communicating with sportsmen they are useless, such cheers are to release repressed energy. Similarly curse words are used to serve this purpose, as they rarely convey any meaning and are only to make the speaker feel better.
- Phatic function (for sociability)
The use of such phrases as ‘nice day today’, or ‘how do you do’ is characterized by lack of any informative content and is intended to link people and make the coexistence peaceful and pleasant. The phatic use of language is characteristic mainly of speech, however, in certain types of writing it can also be noticed, as in letters for example, where the beginning Dear Sir/Madam and ending Yours faithfully also serve that purpose.
- Recording function
Recording function denotes using language to make a durable record of things that ought to be remembered. Owing to its omnipresence writing is probably the most significant function of language. There is evidence that the first writing system was developed in the Middle East as early as 4000 BC. At the beginning writing systems took forms of pictures representing the things they referred to, gradually developing into the alphabets in their present forms.
- Identifying function
Language is used also to identify the objects and events in the world we live in. Without this function language would be almost useless, as it is thanks to the names of things that we know what is talked about. Many primitive societies unable to write believe that names hold great power. Even in western culture names are thought to be immensely important: the God’s name ought not to be used in vain, before giving a name to a newborn child parents consider the choice deeply. We use names to classify different types of things, whether we call a car anautomobile, a lorry, a van or a truck makes a big difference.
- Reasoning function (instrument of thought)
Before we say something we think and to do that we necessarily use language. In most cases it is extremely difficult to think about anything without any use of words. In fact is it also difficult not to think for a longer period of time as human brains work all the time processing information, thus providing us with concepts formulated by means of language.
- Communicating function
This function would probably be pointed at by most language users without major consideration. Indeed it is in all likelihood most commonly used language function by majority of speakers. Requesting, apologizing, informing, ordering as well as promising and refusing are all reasons for communicating our ideas.
- Pleasure functions
The fact that language often gives pleasure both to the speakers and listeners is not only supported by the frequent use of assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia in poetry. Depending on the sounds of languages some are perceived as being mild as English for example, others crude as German. People also derive pleasure from unusual use of syntactic rules, as well as novelties of meanings juxtapositions and language games, which is often used by skilful writers.
- Ideational function
Ideational function refers to the conceptualizing process involved in our mental activities. Thanks to language we are able to understand what happens around us.
- Interpersonal function
Interpersonal function emphasizes that language is mainly a social phenomenon, but apart from enabling communication with other people it enables to project the speaker in the desired way and to represent the speaker.
- Poetic function
Here, the word poetic does not refer to the ability to write poetry, but the ability to manipulate language in a creative way. With the use of jokes and metaphors we can play with words and meanings simply for joy.
- Textual function
Textual competence refers to our ability to create long utterances or pieces of writing which are both cohesive and coherent. Unlike animals people, by use of certain linguistic devices, are able to produce long sentences and text, and not only simple phrases.
The above mentioned functions are only one point of view on language. Most certainly there are many other functions that natural languages fulfill, yet depending on approach to this issue the number of functions and their names might vary.
Finch G. 1998. How to study linguistics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.