What are the Functions of Language?

Roman Jakobson (1960) identified six functions of language in any speech event which he defines as the “constitutive factors in any speech event, in any act of verbal communication.” These functions are related to how language is used in communication. According to Jakobson, it is difficult to find verbal messages that fulfill only a single function.

  1. Referential. The referential function is illustrated by communicative acts of describing things, situations, and conditions. Examples include self-talk, in which people are able to describe how they feel; or giving directions, where speakers describe what was observed.
  2. Poetic. We also use language to express ourselves creatively. This is illustrated by how poets or writers choose their words and the structure or organization of these words to create literary pieces.
  3. Emotive. The emotive or affective function deals with expressing emotions. This function extends the denotative meaning of a statement by adding information about how the speaker feels and what her attitude is on the subject.
  4. Conative. The conative function attempts to evoke a particular reaction in a listener. This is illustrated in utterances that are commanding, requesting, and persuading.
  5. Phatic. We communicate for the sake of interaction. Examples of phatic communication include greeting acquaintances and asking how they are to maintain positive relationships or talking to strangers about things as trivial as the weather.
  6. Metalinguistic. The metalinguistic function occurs when communicators need to “check-up whether they use the same code,” or in other words, when they want to know if they are on the same page. It is important in maintaining that the listener can follow what is being said. This involves paraphrasing, using synonyms, and filling in elliptical utterances. “What do you mean?” is an example of a metalinguistic utterance asking for clarifications.