Imagine for a second that you are an online student. You are at home, writing out the final copy of an assignment you have been working on for some days. It is late at night but you are determined to finish it. The assignment has to be posted tomorrow. You reach for your ruler, and as you bring it towards your page, you knock over your mug of coffee. It runs all over the assignment pages, soaking them in a sticky brown liquid.
You swear loudly, then repeat the swear words, exclaiming at your own stupidity.
What is the function of language used in this instance? You are not communicating with another person, because you are alone in the room. You are communicating intrapersonally, but you are also using another function of language : the expression of emotion.
Using emotive language is a means of ‘letting off steam’, or expressing how we feel when we are under stress. In the example just given, the emotions expressed are negative because it’s anger and/or frustration. However, you could just as well exclaim with delight or admiration if you saw something beautiful, or saw someone doing something with great skill.
In what situations is language used most freely for the expression of emotions, and which languages are used? You probably thought of social situations involving home, family, friends, colleagues or even strangers. What language do you use to describe an emotional work situation when you get home in the evening? If you have children, what language do you use in your interaction with them, especially in situations involving emotion?
Now, let’s try something else…
Imagine that you are walking along the pavement and see someone a few metres away whom you recognize, but do not know well. You lift your hand in greeting, call out ”Hi, How are you doing?” and carry on walking.
Here again, language cannot be said to be performing the function of communicating ideas, because you are not really saying anything meaningful, nor do you necessarily expect a meaningful answer to your question.
The point? Language is often used, not for any communicative purpose, but to maintain relationships between people. Different cultures have different ‘rules’ for what is considered acceptable language behaviour in specific social situations. Different social situations will call for different kinds of verbal behaviour. When you are with friends you have known for a long time, you will probably be very comfortable and relaxed and will use informal language, but in other perhaps more prestigious social gatherings you may be much more formal, and you will find that you are much more conscious of the way you speak.
Is there any meaning, for example, in the common English question ”How are you?” Do people expect the stock reply ”Fine, thanks!”, or do they really expect a detailed description of the other person’s state of health? (Errr, okay perhaps we shouldn’t answer that one!)
Such common examples of language use demonstrate that the most obvious purpose of language is to enable communication and merely a way to oil the wheels of social interaction.