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Roman Jakobson: the Functions of Language

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Humans as a species are quite exclusive to this biological territory for they are the only organisms known to be skillful of thinking, collaborating and preserving potentially an infinite number of thoughts that form the pillars of modern development. This unique ability is a result of the intricate and influential human languages characterized by their recursive syntax and compositional semantic. It has been debated that language is an energetic complex adaptive system that has progressed through the process of self-organization to assist the purpose of human communication requirements. The intricacy of human languages has always fascinated the thoughtfulness of physicists, who have tried to elucidate many linguistic phenomena through models of physical systems.

Languages differ from each other in different respects, e.g., in their sentence structure (syntax), word structure (morphology), sound structure (phonology) and vocabulary (lexicon). However the level and limits of deviation are a challenging puzzle.

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Jakobson’s model of the purposes of language differentiates six elements, or features of communication, that are essential for communication to take place: context, addresser (sender), addressee (receiver), contact, common code and message. All the factors are the pivotal point of a relation, or function, which functions between the message and the factor.

The tasks are the following, in order:

  1. referential (“The Sun is hot”)
  2. emotive (“Yuck!”)
  3. conative (“go there”)
  4. phatic (“Hi?”)
  5. metalingual (“What does he mean by ‘krill’?”)
  6. poetic (“Smurf”)

When we examine the meanings of language for a given unit (such as a word, a text or an image), we postulate to which class or type it belongs (e.g., a textual or pictorial genre), which roles are present/absent, and the features of these functions, including the hierarchical associations and any other relations that may functions between them.

Jakobson has told as that, the act of verbal communication is made of six features:

  1. a context (the co-text, that is, the other verbal signs in the identical message, and the world in which the message takes place)
  2. an addresser (a sender, or enunciator )
  3. an addressee (a receiver, or enunciatee)
  4. a contact between an addresser and addressee
  5. a common code
  6. a message

Jakobson took linguistics beyond syntax, semantics, and morphology, with a cautious analysis of the sounds of language, which often convey a prodigious deal of meaning further than the text. He extended his new serious tools beyond his fresh phonology to syntax and morphology, and even semantics. Language must be inspected in all the variability of its functions. Before debating the poetic function we must describe its place among the other functions of language. An outline of these roles demands a concise survey of the constitutive aspects in any speech event, in any act of verbal communication. The ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE. To be operative the message entails a CONTEXT referred to (the “referent” in another, somewhat ambiguous, nomenclature), graspable by the addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a CODE entirely, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee (or in other words, to the encoder and decoder of the message); and, finally, a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee, supporting both of them to move in and stay in communication. All these dynamics inalienably involved in verbal communication may be schematized as follows.

Each one of these six elements determines a diverse function of language. Although we differentiate six main features of language, we could, however, hardly get verbal messages that would accomplish only one function. The diversity lays not in a monopoly of some one of these a number of functions but in diverse hierarchical orders of functions. The verbal structure of a message depends primarily on the predominant function. And a set toward the referent, an orientation toward the context — briefly, the so-called REFERENTIAL, “denotative,” “cognitive” function — is the prominent task of several messages, the accessory participation of the other functions in such messages must be taken into account by the vigilant linguist.

Jakobson has been pigeon-holed as a linguist ungracious of the finer points of poetry on the origin of a small and misunderstood fragment of his total output, but even a brief perusal of the volume under review should impact anyone that in terms of trenchancy, precision, versatility and cultural range, Jakobson’s legacy is without challenging in the modern age. He has been the crucial, if as yet unacknowledged, figure in the expansion of modern poetics; it is time for us to come to terms with his formidable legacy…” (Galan 1989).


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