An Overview of Communicative Functions of Language

An Overview of Communicative Functions of Language – Agbeleoba, Samuel O.

Language has been shown to be a unique human possession (Sapir, 1921:8). Crystal (1974:29) believes that ‘it is such a familiar phenomenon that we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we know all about it.’ Sharing the same view with Crystal, Babatunde (1997:1) sees language as ‘a place where everybody seems to be a potential linguist’. He says:
…language has become so familiar
a concept that everyone would think
he has an answer to the question
‘what is language?’….
For the purpose of this research, we adopt the definition by Crystal (1974:34), which characterizes language as:
…human vocal noise (or the graphic
representation of this noise in
writing) used systematically and
conventionally by a community
for the purpose of communication.
This shows that the writer or speaker must follow a particular system or convention for such language to be communicative. Also in our analysis of text, there is the need for us to have sound knowledge of the language and its functions. The functional complexity of language is so unique and the symbolic function of language has been described as the mechanism by which meaning is attached to form. The communicative functions of language are the means by which parties exchange symbols in a conventional way to share concept. Many scholars have reacted to the question, “why do we use language?” Notable and separate reactions were presented by Roman Jakobson and M.A.K. Halliday. Jakobson emphasizes ‘poetic function’ while Halliday believes that there are three functions that language carries out in a text.
Roman Jakobson’s Poetic Function of Language
The poetic function of language as explained by Roman Jakobson is the one that has to do with the way text is formed structurally, and this is the concern of formalist linguistics. Jakobson (1960:377) as reported by Afolayan (2004:110) says:
All of us here, however, definitely realize
that a linguist deaf to poetic function of
language and a literary scholar indifferent
to linguistic problems and unconversant
with linguistic method are equally
flagrant anachronisms.
Scholes (1974:26) explains the poetic function further that:
…the most important kind of emphasis in
utterance is what we find when the message
emphasizes itself, drawing attention to its
own sound patterns, diction and syntax.
This is poetic function, which appears in all
The focus is on the form of a language. Scholes argues his point in line with Jacobson’s submission. According to Jakobson (1960:351), each function is associated with a dimension of the communication process. He identifies six participants in the communication process to include context, message, sender, receiver, channel and code. Jakobson argues that when the language of communication directs attention to the writer, who is the sender, it performs emotive function; when attention is directed to the reader or receiver, it performs conative function; when attention is on the context of communication, it performs referential function, when it is directed to the channel, the language performs phatic function; when attention is directed at the code (language), it performs metalingual function but when attention is directed to the message the language performs a poetic function. According to him, ‘the verbal situation of a message depends primarily on the predominant (poetic) function’.
However, M.A.K Halliday’s submission is quite different as he collapsed all the functions that language performs under what he called communicative functions of language. This will be discussed in the following section.
M.A.K. Halliday’s Communicative Functions of   Language
The communicative function of language, according to Halliday, has to do with meaning of the text. It is semantic in approach and a build up to the Systemic Functional Theory. He never sees linguistic features that abound in a text in isolation. Rather, he sees them in relation to one another and to the whole work as a unified communicative event. The functionalists, generally, view language as a dynamic, open system by means of which a community exchanges information. Halliday (1973:8) believes that ‘language serves for the expression of content’. Functional theory of language also attempts to explain the linguistic structure and phenomena, by reference to the role that language plays in human lives.
Halliday finds this approach valuable in general because of its insight into the nature and use of language. He places emphasis on meaning rather than form as opposed to Jakobson’s emphasis on the poetic function of language. Halliday (1970:16) identifies three functions of language which include ideational, interpersonal and textual functions.
By ideation, Halliday means an expression of cognitive meaning. The ideational function of language relates to the field of discourse, or its subject matter and context of use. Weber (1978:327) as quoted in Afolayan (2004:114) also supports this view by asserting that:

…the speaker or writer embodies in
language his experience of the phenomena
of the real world; and this includes his
experience of the internal world of
his own consciousness, his reaction,
cognitions and perceptions, and  also his
linguistic acts of speaking and understanding.
He believes that the speaker or writer can see through and around the settings of his semantic system. Halliday in this concept claims that a man is known by the type of language he employs while expressing himself.
The interpersonal function of language, according to Halliday, is quite different from expression of content. It relates to the tenor aspect of a discourse. It also has to do with the speaker/writer personal, social distance and the relative social status between the communicators. Here, a speaker is using language as the means of his own intrusion into the speech event; which involves the expression of his comments, attitudes, evaluations and also the relationship that exist between him and the reader. This subsumes the expressive and conative features under a single semantic feature of interrogation. It is in the light of this that Leech and Short (1981:257) define language as:
…a vehicle of communication whereby
one person conveys message to another
for a range of different purposes, e.g.
informing, ordering, persuading, reassuring.
This shows that production and reception of a spoken message normally take place within a single time and space and the basic tool for these, is language.
Lastly, Halliday sees the textual function of language as instrumental to the ideational and interpersonal functions. It has to do with the mode of discourse. Textual function of language sees into the internal organization and communicative nature of a text which include textual interactivity, spontaneity and communicative distance. Though a text is an operational unit of language, the textual function is not limited to the relations between sentences. It is also concerned with the internal organization of a sentence, with its meaning as a message both in itself and in relation to the context of communication. Leech and Short (1981:137) affirms this by saying that:
Success in interpersonal communication
depends on success in transmitting  a
message, which in turn depends in
part on success in terms of text production.
Texts are communication seen as physical transactions between the writer and the reader. Language has resource s for creating text; being operationally relevant and cohering with itself and with the context of situation (Halliday and Hassan 1976:27).

The importance of language to man is inestimable especially when daily human interactions are considered.  An effective communication approach should remain the bedrock of any language study.  Linguists of all persuasions seem to agree that a language should be viewed as a set of elements, each of which has a function of contributing to the working of the whole, (Beaugrande and Dressler, 1981:31).
Language has continued to perform significant and elaborate functions in almost all the facets of our life.  English language has also continued to grow and expand in its interactions with other languages of the world.

Flamand Lee (2009) Introduction to Text Linguistics.
Firth, J.R. (1957) Papers in Linguistics 1934-51. London: Oxford University Press.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1970) Language Structure and Language Function in Lyons J. ed. New Horizons in Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, M.A.K. and R. Hassan (1976) Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
Halliday, M.A.K. and R. Hassan (1989) Language, Context and Text: Aspects of Language in Social-semiotic Perspective 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 2nd Edition. London: Edward Arnold.
Jakobson, Roman (1960) Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics, in Sebeok, T.A. Style in Language. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Samuel Agbeleoba

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