linguistic anthropology

Beyond reference

What’s language for?

If you’re not a linguist or an anthropologist, you probably answered “communicating ideas” or maybe “talking about things.”

And it’s true, that’s one of the things language is for — but it’s far from the only one.

Linguist Roman Jakobson broke language down to six functions. All six, he said, are present in every single utterance, but one or two may be dominant.

The referential function describes a situation (“There are two sofas in my aunt’s house in Wyoming.”), object (“That urn is tarnished.”), or mental state (“Love is a many-splendored thing.”). This is the function that’s most central to our common-sense model of language.

The expressive function relates to the speaker. This function is often highlighted in interjections (“Ouch!”) as well as talk about feelings (“I’m so embarrassed…”).

The conative function relates to the addressee. This is particularly evident in vocatives (“Hi Jena”) and imperatives (“Come here!”).

The poetic function relates to the message for its own sake. That is, this function is about the form rather than the content. It’s language that calls attention to its own formal properties. Think about rhyme, alliteration, repetition, parallelism, or ways of playing around with sound and structure: “I like Ike.” Think about grammatical parallelism: “I don’t want to hear you, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to know you.”

The phatic function opens, maintains, verifies, or closes a communication channel. This can be a physical channel like a microphone or a PA system (“Testing, testing, 1 2 3.”) or a social connection (“Hi, how are you?” or “Thanks.”). Everyone remembers that awful “Can you hear me now?” Verizon commercial — that’s the phatic function. And entire conversations can be phatic, in the sense that they maintain or solidify a social connection, as when you call your mother just to tell her you love her.

Finally, the metalinguistic function is language that describes or discusses language itself. This entire blog is heavily metalinguistic. Or consider the following sentences: “Did you understand what I said?” “How do you spell ‘relieve’?” “It’s never appropriate to tell a joke on the first date.” “How do you say ‘I love you’ in French?”

And linguist Dell Hymes breaks language into only two functions: referential, and stylistic or indexical. Roughly, his second category includes all the social work that language does — collapsing five of Jakobson’s categories into one.

Importantly, every single difference that doesn’t change referential meaning is available for this social work.

  • These include nonlinguistic and paralinguistic elements. “Non-linguistic elements” are things that have nothing to do with language — the way we dress is a good example. Meanwhile, “paralinguistic” differences are those that are inseparable from spoken language but aren’t words or grammar — think body language, pitch, volume, and so on. (In written language, punctuation, spelling, font size, capitalization, and so on are all paralinguistic.)
  • These include the choice of language variety. If two people who are both multilingual or multidialectal are having a conversation, what does it mean that they choose to use one form or another?
  • These include word choice. What’s the difference between “drunk,” “inebriated,” and “fucked up”?
  • English doesn’t differentiate between a formal and an informal ‘you’ but lots of languages do, and some make even finer distinctions. This distinction does tons of work in articulating, creating, and reflecting relationships.
  • What’s the difference between “The ball hit him.” and “He got hit by the ball.”? (Hint: it’s about focus.)

Six functions, two functions, whatever. What’s key here is that reference isn’t the only thing that language does. When we assume that it is, we miss out on some of language’s most important work.