What Words Do…

I’ve been thinking a lot about language and linguistics lately.  It’s possible that this is a by-product of the fact that I’m taking a rather challenging course in advanced grammar and linguistics.  Just a guess, it’s hard to say why I think what I think.  In any case, one of the most interesting and engaging concepts that I’ve come across lately is related to the question of what language is for.  There’s a linguist out there, a guy named Halliday (I quoted him about a zillion years ago in my last post), who suggests that language has a whole bunch of different functions.  That is to say, language does a lot of things.  Most of these things (I won’t bother listing them all, it’s kind of complicated) eventually clump together as we grow older.  Eventually the most important clump, or meta-function, is the informational function.  Language for adults is mostly about communicating information, about telling something to somebody that he/she doesn’t know (or that we think he/she doesn’t know, whatever).

Here’s the thing, though.  For kids this is one of the least important functions that language performs.  I’m not sure exactly when this happens, I haven’t read all of the relavant research, but early on in life when we are learning language we don’t really think about language as a tool to give others new information.  If you have little kids who have only recently learned to talk watch them and see if this seems right or not.  It works with my son.  If he sees a picture of a cow he says “Cow!”  I’m pretty sure he’s not telling me it’s a cow.  He knows I know that.  What he’s telling me is that he likes cows.  He’s using language to communicate not information, but emotion.  He’s engaging with me relationally.

This is, I think, why we have so much difficulty with poetry.  We are so fixated on what the poem means that we completely miss what it is that poems are for.  Poetry is trying to do something other than give information, it is trying to create an emotional encounter.

Let me put it another way.  If I come home and my wife looks at me angrily and says “You’re late,” she is not using the informational meta-function of language.  She is not trying to inform me of the fact that I am late.  If I assume that her words are being used to communicate information the evening is likely going to go badly for me.

Your words do a lot of things, and though communicating information is an important one of those things, it isn’t the only one.  As an excercise today, try being more conscious of the relational aspect of your language and the language of those around you.  Be attentive to what your words do and not just to what they mean.  It is, at the very least, a fun experiment.

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