The 6 Functions of Language
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
At the start of every year, I like to talk about the role of language and how it can be transformative. I will ask my students to read and discuss around twenty quotes about the power of stories and words and then have them get into groups to create large mind maps. I’ll hang these around the room to remind them of where we started the year and as a quick cheat sheet if they get stuck thinking about the purpose of a specific literary technique or passage.
When we have the conversation, I like to focus on a few of the major functions of language. These first three functions relate to the passage of time:
Almost all of literature has to do with the country, travels, experiences, and culture of the writer. Sometimes the story comments on people that have extreme amounts of power like in the case of Shakespeare, and sometimes it has to do with families or individuals whose experiences relate to the politics and culture of their town, region, country, or world. Language tries to make sense of the past, of facts. This is what happened to this one person, or to millions of people. Even videos and photographs can fall short of telling the whole story of a single moment.
2. Beauty and Being
Some of the most wonderful poems and passages in novels celebrate the magic of the present moment. They capture where consciousness and reality meet. Sometimes, characters experience beauty, epiphanies, or enlightenment because all their experiences and thoughts culminate in one explosive moment where the person or place in front of them becomes endowed with a meaning beyond the material. Whereas an image or photograph presents an external reality to us, words capture both the image and how we emotionally react to being in a moment or situation. Every writer of course must look back on a moment to capture it, but that is the magic of the present tense – the livestream of language.
3. Reimagining Reality
All literature is as much about defining the past as it is about redefining the future. Take satire, for instance. When I teach satire, I tell my students, you laugh, but then you think. Then you take those thoughts and demand more out of society, or out of yourself. You improve. You become better. We improve. We become better. Or there’s more obvious examples like science fiction that force us to think about the world we live in and how we could be headed in the wrong direction. When we read about the life paths and decisions of a character, we consider our own life paths and decisions. We become wiser and more in tune with what we want. Then we take that longing and make a plan with it.
The next set of functions have to do with place and space:
4. Place, Self and Identity
When a character tries to answer the question, who am I, they think as much about themselves as they do about their surroundings. The people around them and the place they call home. What makes us, us, is elusive. Most of who we are comes from our childhood and how we were raised. We find belonging through the clothes we wear, the bands we love, and our hobbies. That becomes our core until our experiences change us. We change after conversations, surprises, disappointments, losses, successes, and all the art we experience – the movies, books, poems, podcasts, essays, paintings, television shows, theater performances, sports, music, concerts, stand-up comedians, satire, or dance. Language helps us navigate, organize, and make sense of all these new worlds that we encounter on a daily basis.
5. Community Functions: Spirituality, Work, Politics, Culture, Family/Friends
While language helps us find who we are and what we want, it also helps us switch modes or shift discourses from one world to the next. We live in multiple communities, sometimes simultaneously, that demand a certain tone, vocabulary, and in a way, performance. How can we be ourselves when we must meet the expectations of our coaches, religious leaders, bosses, parents and siblings, and culture? We must find the right words to politely or even passionately express our desires, goals, vision, and worldview.
Saul Bellow said it best: “What is art but a way of seeing?” Language, at its finest, transports us to another time, place, and mind. Great stories provide single or multiple perspectives, and allows us to understand how those perspectives interact. In real life, we don’t know what the other person is thinking when we tell them something, but literature allows us to know what’s happening internally, beyond the gestures and body language. However, a great story always leaves out some truth for us to find; it’s impossible to read someone’s mind, but the harder we work to figure it out, the clearer things will be.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers