Language is the most important tool of communication invented by human civilization. Language helps us share our thoughts, and understand others. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of language for our lives. Every time we speak, we do it with a particular purpose. Sometimes we want to deliver a message, or express our feelings. We use language to ask for help, or just to say a joke.
Generally, there are five main functions of language, which are informational function, aesthetic function, expressive, phatic, and directive functions. Any language is determined by a number of factors, such as a social background, attitudes and origin of people. Language is always related to situation it is used within. Every person has a certain social background, and this is what determines one’s language.
We are going to consider different functions of language, and its connection to social circumstances, since language is related to the type of social organization.
As we mentioned above, language is used in every part of our lives, and it’s the most important part of communication. We use language in every situation, every time we need something. In turn, our needs determine our language, since we choose a type of language that is most effective for our needs.
Every our sentence has its particular function. It may express a statement, or a question. It also may be just an exclamation. If we want to know something, we create a sentence in the form of a question. In other case, if we want to share information or emotions, we choose a statement structure.
According to Geoffery Leech (1974), there are five main functions of language. We mentioned all these five functions at the beginning. Now, let’s take a closer look at each one of them.
The informational function can be considered most important, since it helps us deliver messages, describe things, and give our listener new information. Actually, message is a word that describes this function best. The informational function is also related to such terms as a truth and a value.
The next function of language is the expressive function. We need such function every time we want to express our feelings. There are words that are used to express attitudes and feelings, which don’t deliver any particular information. Obvious examples of such words are swear words, as well as various exclamations. This function of language is used not to deliver a message, but to express feelings and impressions. Due to the expressive function of language, we can understand the personality of a speaker, and his or her emotions. While the informational function can be illustrated on the example of an encyclopedia article, the expressive function is used in literature and poetry. Every time we say a phrase like “I love this movie so much”, we don’t give a listener any particular information about the subject of this sentence, except our feelings about it.
The directive function of language is used to induce certain actions or reactions. The example of such a function is a command. Another example of this function is a request. Here affective and situational meanings of a phrase are more important than a general meaning, which makes this function somewhat similar to the expressive function. The directive function is a function of social control and interpersonal interaction. Another feature of this function is that the reaction of a listener is even more important than a thought expressed by a speaker, since this reaction determines whether such a phrase achieved the target or not.
Every time we ask someone to bring us something, it’s a directional use of language. We motivate somebody and influence his or her behavior in a certain way. Sometimes directive sentences may express more than one function. For example, if we say “I’m hungry”, it means both information about us, and a request for food. This sentence also expresses our feelings, so this example represents three functions of language in one short sentence.
Another function of language is the aesthetic function. According to Leech (1974), this function doesn’t have any particular purpose. Here words and sentences are considered as linguistic artifacts. This function serves neither as a request nor as a message. The aesthetic function helps us use words as a tool of a poetic art, and as certain signs. Here the beauty of chosen words and phrases is more important than usefulness of this information. For the sake of such a function, we use different adjectives, such as “gorgeous”, “elegant”, “stunning”, and so on. According to Jacobson (1933), who studied this function of language more than anyone else, the aesthetic function depends not only on structure, but on cultural norms as well. He also gives an example of such influence, comparing poems of Karel Macha, and diaries, as examples of aesthetic functions applied by different generations.
The fifth function of language is the phatic function. The only purpose of such a function is to maintain social relationships, and to begin, or continue the conversation. A well-known example from British culture is a small talk about the weather. Such a kind of talk doesn’t provide us with any necessary information. It even doesn’t express our feelings, but it helps us to interact with people. Every time we meet somebody on the street, we can talk about the weather, or work, or children, it doesn’t matter. The real reason for such a talk is not our interest, but simply our desire to talk. Of course, such conversations may also contain some interesting information, but it’s not necessary.
There are other classification systems for language. For example, H. Douglas Brown highlighted not five, but seven functions of language, noting that his system isn’t really different from Leech’s system. Generally, such an approach was introduced by J. R. Firth, who created a basis for British linguists, considering language as an interpersonal and interactive tool. According to him, language forms our behavior and helps us influence the behavior of others.