F is for Functions

20 08 2017

7th function of languageThere are not many novels whose theme is linguistics but the book I took to read on vacation is one of them. It’s called The Seventh Function of Language, and is by the French writer Laurent Binet (2015; English translation 2017). It’s a sort of whacky thriller that plays with the idea that the death of the French semiotician, linguist and literary theorist Roland Barthes (he was run over by a laundry van only hours after lunching with François Mitterand in 1980) was not an accident. It appears that Barthes had stumbled upon an as yet unidentified function of language – one so powerful that, in the wrong hands, it might wreak havoc.

In order to enlighten the lay reader, Binet recaps the six functions of language as identified by one of Barthes’ most important influences, the Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson, and spelled out in a lecture Jakobson gave when assuming the presidency of the Linguistic Society of America in 1956.

These six functions map neatly on to each of the six dimensions of any speech event – the context, the addresser and addressee, the physical and psychological channel (or contact) between them, the language (or code), and the message itself. They are

  1. the referential function, i.e. the way language refers to the context, whether local or global, real or imagined, in which it is used – e.g. ‘It’s 35 degrees in the shade.’
  2. the emotive, or expressive function, i.e. the way that addressers encode their attitude, or their degree of commitment, to the message, e.g. ‘It’s too darned hot!’
  3. the conative function, where the focus is on the addressee, e.g. in the form of a command: ‘Why don’t you turn on the fan?’
  4. the phatic function, where language is being used to lubricate the channel of contact, irrespective of its content, as when we make small talk: ‘Hot enough for you?’
  5. the metalinguistic function, where language itself is the focus, as in ‘How do you say heat-wave in Swedish?’ and
  6. the poetic function, where language draws attention to itself – its form, style, and aesthetics – as in the playful use of rhyme in the line ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’ Or, more sublimely, the cadences of Shakespeare’s song:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages…

Jakobson himself noted that ‘although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function’ (1990, p. 73).  That is to say, any one utterance can encode different functions, just as one function can be realized by various linguistic means.

Laurent BinetThe Binet novel is a useful reminder as to how seminal a figure Jakobson was: arguably the most influential linguist of the 20th century.

Born in Moscow in 1896, he studied philology but, even at a young age, he was frustrated by the failure of linguistics to see beyond the ‘scattered parts’ of language, thereby ignoring how it functions as a whole. In 1920 he moved to Prague and helped form the ‘Prague Circle’ where he was able to pursue his interest in the way that the parts of language – specifically its phonemes – form an interconnected system, whereby the parts can only be described in relation to other parts. Because of this concern for the inherent systematicity of language, Jakobson aligns with the structuralist tradition dating back to Saussure. But it would be wrong to think of Jakobson’s linguistics as purely formal (in the American tradition of Fries and Chomsky) and that he disregarded meaning: his interest in the functions of language – a line of enquiry he further elaborated after moving to the US in 1939 – attests to his ‘bi-focal’ view of language. Indeed, as Waugh and Monville-Burston note, in the introduction to their edition of Jakobson’s works (1990, p. 14):

For the Prague Circle, functionalism and structuralism were inseparable. Jakobson himself described his theory of language as one in which function (language as a tool for communication) and structure (language as a lawful governed whole) are combined…: language is structured so as to be suitable for communication.

The pedagogical implications of this two-pronged view of language continue to reverberate – and to challenge teachers and course designers alike. How do you reconcile the fact that language is a tool for communication while at the same time it is a rule-governed system (of considerable intricacy and complexity)? The pendulum seems to swing both ways without ever finding a point of equilibrium.

Thus, for structuralist-influenced approaches, such as audiolingualism, the syllabus was unapologetically structural and the major focus of instruction was pattern practice – although it would misrepresent audiolingualism to say that it ignored communication entirely. Indeed, a key document in the audiolingual canon observes that ‘probably the best way to practice a foreign language is to use it in communicating with others. Thus, teachers should provide time for meaning-oriented practice’ (Krohn 1971, p. viii).

JakobsonOn the other hand, the communicative approach, in seeking to redress the prevailing structural bias by substituting a syllabus of functions or tasks, may have erred in the opposite direction. Besides, as Brumfit was one of the first to point out, (1978, p. 41), a functional syllabus simply replaces one set of discrete-items with another: ‘No inventory of language items can itself capture the essence of communication.’

The reversion to a grammatical syllabus that now drives most general English programs, although notionally ‘communicative’ in their allegiance, seems to have sent the pendulum swinging back again.

It is testimony to the greatness of Jakobson that he was able to bestride these two poles with enormous intellectual, cultural and linguistic authority. It’s only a pity that he had no advice to give us language teachers.

Meanwhile – is there a seventh function of language? Well, you will have to read Binet to find out!


Binet, L. (2017)The 7th Function of Language (translated by S. Taylor). London: Harvill Secker.

Brumfit, C.J. (1978) “‘Communicative” language teaching: an assessment’, in P. Strevens (ed.) In Honour of A.S. Hornby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krohn, R. (1971) English sentence structure. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jakobson, R. (1990) On Language. Edited by Waugh, L. R. & M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.