There have been many, sometimes conflicting attempts to classify the main functions of language (macrofunctions) and the elements of communication. The theory I am going to follow is one of the clearest and most influential, which was formulated by the linguist Roman Jakobson (1960), and further developed by Dell Hymes (1962). (The terms used here are based on both accounts, without exactly following either). I am going to begin by identifying the elements of communication:

·         THE ADDRESSER is the person who originates the message. This is usually the same as the person who is sending the message, but not always, as in the case of messenger, spokespeople and town criers.

·         THE ADDRESSEE is the person to whom the message is addressed. This is usually the person who receives the message, but not necessarily so, as in the case of intercepted letters, bugged telephone calls, and eavesdropping.

·         THE CHANNEL is the medium through which the message travels: sound waves, marks on paper, telephone wires or word processor screens.

·         THE MESSAGE FORM is the particular grammatical and lexical choices of the message.

·         THE TOPIC is the information carried in the message.

·         THE CODE is the language or dialect used (Swedish, Yorkshire English…)

·         THE SETTING is the social and physical context.

In Jakobson’s model, each of the elements of the communication process are associated with one of the six macro-functions of language he proposed. We are going to analyse them.

·         Imagine the sentence “I am very happy that Tom Cruise is coming to the party”. It centres upon the addresser, who communicates his inner states and emotions. This type of macro-function is known as THE EMOTIVE FUNCTION.

·         Imagine the sentence ”Shut up and do your homework!”. Attention is focused upon the addressee, seeking to affect his behaviour. This function is known as THE DIRECTIVE FUNCTION.

·         Take a sentence like “Clementine, can you hear me? Are you still on the phone?” These types of sentences serve to open the channel or to check that the channel is working for social or practical reasons. Speech is used not to convey thoughts but to create ties of union by mere exchange of words. This type of macro-function focuses on the channel and it is called THE PHATIC FUNCTION. Phatic communication is speech for the sake of social context. Greetings are part of it, since they serve to start conversations, setting the tone and helping establish the relationship between the speakers.

·          Advertising slogans like “Beanz means Heinz”, “Revilla, ¡qué maravilla! or tongue-twisters show that the particular form chosen is the essence of the message, that is, the form is more important than the message itself. This type of function centres upon the message form and is called THE POETIC FUNCTION.

·         Sentences such as “The earth turns around the sun” are used to carry information. They focus on the topic and this use is known as THE REFERENCTIAL FUNCTION.

·         A sentence like “What does this word mean?” or “This bone is known as the femur” focuses attention upon the code itself, to clarify or negotiate it. This function is known as THE METALINGUISTIC FUNTION.

·         Finally, the sentences “Let’s start the lecture” or “Right” are used to create a particular kind of communication. They focus on the context and develop the function called THE CONTEXTUAL FUNCTION.

Related to the functions of language is the notion of functional development. When a crying baby realises that by controlling her cries and producing them at will rather than automatically, she can influence the behaviour of her parents, she has progressed from the emotive to the directive function. Phatic communication also begins very early. The poetic function too is apparent at an early stage: when young children latch on to a phrase and repeat it endlessly, without conveying any information. The referential function gains its prominence only at a later stage, and the metalinguistic function also comes later; these are the functions on which a considerable amount of attention is lavished at school. Surprisingly, considering this course of development, a good deal of foreign language teaching begins with the metalinguistic function, by explicitly stating the rules of grammar.

            If we accept this categorization of language into a small number of macrofuntions, we might then go on to subdivide each function and specify more delicate categories or microfunctions. A breakdown of the directive function for example may look something like this:      

Requests for action
Requests for information
Request for help
Requests for sympathy

            It is easy to imagine a similar division of any of the other six macrofunctions, resulting in a list of functions used as the basis of functional language courses. Functional courses set out to list the purposes for which students might wish to use language, and then to teach them to do so.

            Jakobson and Hymes’ theory was used as the basis for future theories on the functions of language. Whilst linguists have sought to understand how, as speakers, people are able to produce an infinite number of sentences given a finite set of rules, philosophers have tried to explain how an infinite number of sentences may reflect a finite set of functions. These theories belong to the field of semantics. One of the most important ones is known as speech act theory. Philosophers such as Austin (1962) and Searle (1969) argued that utterances could be classified into a set of speech act functions. They reasoned that since the number of things people do with words is limited, people ought to be able to assign functions to utterances. Hence, people do not only produce utterances containing grammatical structures and words, they perform actions via those utterances, which are generally called speech acts such as apology or request. The speaker and hearer are usually helped in this process by the circumstances surrounding the utterance. These utterances, including others, are called the speech event. It is also necessary to bear in mind that speech is never completely context free due to factors such as status, age, gender, and so on, which determine social constraints.

            Regarding speech acts, the action performed by producing an utterance will consist of three related acts. There is a locutionary act, which is the basic act of utterance, or producing a meaningful linguistic expression. Mostly we do not just produce well-formed utterances with no purpose. We form an utterance with some kind of function in mind. This is the second dimension, or the illocutionary act. An example is I’ve just made some coffee. I might utter it to make a statement, an offer, or for some other communicative purpose. This is known as the illocutionary force of the utterance. Moreover, we create an utterance with a function intending it to have an effect. This effect is the perlocutionary act. Depending on the circumstance, you will utter an utterance on the assumption that the hearer will recognize the effect you intended, for example to account for the wonderful smell of the coffee or to get the hearer to drink some. This is known as the perlocutionary effect. Then, the same utterance or locutionary act can have different illocutionary and perlocutionary forces.

One of the most widely used taxonomies of speech act types is that proposed by Searle (1976). There are 5 types of general functions performed by speech acts:

  • Directives (Requests). Those speech acts that speakers use to get someone else to do something.  They are commands, orders, requests, suggestions; positive or negatives. Some verbs include: suggest, prohibit, order… for example: “Don´t touch that!” The imperative and polite imperative are usually taught in foreign language teaching. The relationship between the roles of the speaker and addressee acts as a constraint and if these constraints are ignored or unknown, offence may be taken.

  • Commissives. Those kinds of speech acts that speakers use to commit themselves to some future action. They express what the speaker intends. They are promises, threats, refusals, pledges… Commissives are also language and culture bound differing across status, situation and according to some gender. Some verbs used are: guarantee, swear, promise…. An example is: “I’ll be back”

·         Representatives. A speaker expresses his/her belief that the propositional content of the utterance is true, so modality is an important element here. He may express an attitude of belief using several types of acts: asserting, predicting, describing, advising... Some verbs include: affirm, advise, suggestfor example: “the earth is flat”.

·         Expressives. Also called “evaluatives”, they are utterances that have an expressive function, stating what the speaker feels. They express psychological states and can be statements of pleasure, pain, likes, dislikes, joy or sorrow. They are about the speaker’s experience. Some verbs include: greet, apologise, complimentfor example, “Congratulations!” Many of the stereotypes regarding cultures are bound up with expressives.

·         Declaratives and Performatives. The issuer informs objectively about the external reality or about his/her ideas about it. They, when uttered, bring about a new state of being, for example when a priest says, “I pronounce you man and wife” the status of the couple changes. The person who utters it must have the power to do so.

The above five speech acts can be described as direct speech acts since there is a match between sentences meaning and speaker meaning, i.e. that the form of the utterance coincides with its function. However, much of what people say is not direct. People often use statements to make requests and even to give orders.  For instance, the statement “Today there is a nice film on, isn’t there?” according to Searle would be a representative. However, the listener might also attach an extra, indirect meaning, such us “Can you switch on the TV?” In this case it is performing an indirect speech act, when there is an indirect relationship between a structure and a function. In English, indirect speech acts are generally associated with greater politeness than direct speech acts.