Functions of language

Jakobson’s functions of language

Reading time: about 6 min


  • Business

Every creature on earth has developed a way to communicate emotions, thoughts, and desires. For example, pet owners know when their dogs or cats want to go out or when they are hungry.

But what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our unique ability to use a formal language. Our languages help us to think critically, collaborate with others, brainstorm ideas, and convey specific meaning as we plan, organize, and execute important projects. 

You might be surprised to learn that there are approximately 7,000 different languages spoken in the world. These languages differ in how the words are put together, word pronunciation, and sentence structure. But with all of their differences, all of these languages have the same purpose—to communicate clearly with other people.

In this article we’ll discuss Roman Jakobson’s functions, or factors, that all languages need in order to communicate effectively.

Who is Roman Jakobson?

Roman Jakobson was a linguist who studied the structure of language and was particularly interested in the difficulties that appear in many languages. He was one of the pioneers in structural linguistics, which is the theory that language is a structured system of interrelated formal units. Structural linguistics analyzes how units such as word structure, sentence syntax, and phonetics relate to each other.  

Jakobson was also interested in philology—the study of literary texts, and oral and written records, as well as establishing their authenticity. His work eventually led to creating a theory of communication in which he established what he called the six functions of language.

What is Jakobson’s theory of communication? 

The word communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means “to share” or “to be in relation with.” This makes sense because sharing and relations sort of form the basis of communication. You need at least one person to share information, and at least one person to receive that information, to participate in the communication process.

Jakobson’s theory looks at what needs to be present in the process of linguistic communication, beyond the simple relationship of sending and receiving information. Jakobson establishes that there are six functions of language that are needed for communication to occur. In addition, there are six elements, or factors, in the communication process. Each function focuses on and interacts with a factor of the communication process.

What are the six factors of communication?

In Jakobson’s theory, there are six factors that are required for communication:

  • Addresser: This is the person who delivers a message to a specific audience.
  • Addressee: This is the audience that receives the message. Must consist of at least one person but could include many people.
  • Context: The context forms the setting or the reason for the message that will be communicated.
  • Contact: There needs to be a relational channel and connection between the addresser and the addressee. This connection keeps the lines of communication open. 
  • Common code: The code includes the rules that combine to form the message and correspond to the type of language used.
  • Message: The message is what is sent by the addresser and corresponds to an experience, idea, explanation, and so on.

Basically, these factors work together to enable the communication process. They are the steps to successful communication, which looks like this:

  1. Every communication includes a sender and a receiver (addresser and addressee).
  2. The sender establishes the context of the message so it can be understood. This includes the environment it’s given in, the conditions, and where and when the message is given. It can also include the potential for interference during the communication.
  3. The addressee gives feedback to the addresser during and after the delivery of the message. This establishes the contact that keeps the communication channel open. Feedback can be verbal or nonverbal, such as nodding agreement or stating that the message is understood. 
  4. To make the communication clear and easier to understand, a common code is used. For example, developers working in an agile environment understand Scrum, iteration, and standup meetings.

What are the six functions of language?

Language is more than just knowing a lot of different words and what those words mean. If we don’t know how to put those words together, they won’t have much meaning. We learn how to form sentences and phrases by listening to others and by studying grammar. It’s the grammar that helps us to understand the system, structure, and meaning of written or spoken sentences.

Jakobson’s theory of communication includes six functions of language. If the grammar tells us what the message means, the functions tell us the purpose of the addresser who is using the language.

Following are the six functions of language that Jakobson described:

  • Referential: One of the main functions of language is sharing information with an audience. This is the language you use to convey information in an objective way. For example: Sales are up 3% this quarter.
  • Emotive: Also called expressive, this function helps us to interpret emotions, feelings, desires, and moods of the subject. The emotive function gives us direct information about the sender’s tone. For example: I’m excited about the new car I bought!
  • Conative: This function focuses on the receiver of the message. The language used with this function is meant to get the attention of or a reaction from the addressee. For example: Can you show John where to find the paper clips?  
  • Phatic: The phatic function is used to establish a social connection without really communicating any meaningful information. This type of language is used to start or stop a conversation or to check the connection between the sender and receiver. For example: “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “See you later.”
  • Poetic: This one is also known as the aesthetic function of language. This function focuses on the message as well as the way the message is communicated. This means that the message might be embellished with rhetorical figures of speech or “flowery” language. You will find the poetic function in quotations and colloquial sayings. For example: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” 
  • Metalingual: Meta is basically defined as self-awareness. So metalingual refers to talking about the language itself—its features, word definitions, clarifying ambiguity, and describing deliberate word play are metalingual functions. The metalingual function is also relevant in translation if foreign words are used to give special meaning or emphasis. For example: I couldn’t help but feel a touch of Schadenfreude (a sense of pleasure or joy from the failure of others) when the other team lost by 50 points.

Understanding how we communicate always helps us improve our interactions with others. At Lucid, we also know that a picture is worth a thousand words. Try sharing your words in a Lucidchart document or Lucidspark board, so your team can come together to talk and illustrate their next great idea!

Functions of language

Want more tips for communicating effectively?  

Check out this blog post.

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