What Do We Use Language For?

Hint: It’s more than just providing information. Language can change the world.

Posted Dec 14, 2014

Language is central to all our lives and is arguably the cultural tool that sets humans apart from any other species. And on some accounts, language is the symbolic behaviour that allowed human singularities—art, religion, and science—to occur. We use it to buy groceries in the supermarket, to get a job, to hire or fire an employee, to buy train tickets, and to compose an email. We use it to make a telephone call, to flirt, to invite someone out on a date, to propose marriage, to get married, to quarrel, and to make up afterward. Language allows us to make friends and enemies, to pass the time of day, and so on. In our everyday lives, we produce and comprehend language with such apparent ease that we take it for granted.

A sobering fact about language is this: Unlike other forms of cultural behaviour, it is blind to demographics, socioeconomics, and ethnic difference. I, you, and every other cognitively normal human being in the world uses (or comes to use) language with the apparent ease that we take for granted. Put another way, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, black or white, or what your eye colour is. You are destined to acquire at least one language—although the majority of the world’s nearly 7 billion people grow up speaking two or more languages. In this, the pattern of monolingualism amongst English-speaking populations is not the norm.

And, by around four years of age, each normally developing human child is a linguistic genius. Nevertheless, we carry on learning our mother tongue, throughout our lives. This is the case not least because the language we speak changes and evolves, often in quite short periods of time.

In virtually all of the situations in which we find ourselves in our daily lives, language allows quick and effective expression, and provides a well-developed means of encoding and transmitting complex and subtle ideas. Language does this by fulfilling two key functions, functions that underpin linguistic communication.

The first is that language enables us to express our wishes, feelings, likes, dislikes, and ideas—its symbolic function. This language achieves by encoding and externalising our thoughts. To do this, language uses symbols. Symbols are meaningful bits of language. These include sub-parts of words, such as un- and -ed in uninterested, whole words like walk, yesterday, and knickers or groups of words that form clauses, such as behind the sofa, and groups of clauses that form sentences like She left her knickers behind the sofa.

The symbols that make up English, or any language, consist of two parts, a form and a meaning. Forms may be spoken, written or signed—as in British Sign Language, the sign language of the British deaf community—while the meanings are the ideas or concepts that are conventionally associated with them. For instance, in spoken English, the word cat is made up of the three distinct sound segments, technically known as phonemes /k/, /æ/ and /t/ that combine to give the form /kæt/. The meaning unit conventionally paired with this form constitutes the stable knowledge that you and I have relating to cats: that they have four legs, whiskers, a tail, make sounds of particular sorts, exhibit quirky, cat-like behaviour of particular kinds, and so on.

However, for language to function effectively as a means of communication, it is not enough that it employs symbols to associate forms and meanings. In addition, these form-meaning pairings must be recognised by, and be accessible to, others in our community. After all, we use language to get our ideas across, to communicate. This involves a process of transmission by the speaker, and decoding and interpretation by the hearer. In short, language fulfills a symbolic or communicative function.

But in addition, the messages we choose to symbolically encode in language invariably perform an interactive and hence social role—the second function of language. For instance, we can use language to change the way the world is. When a member of the clergy makes the utterance: I now pronounce you husband and wife, in an appropriate setting, and addressed to two consenting adults, the utterance changes an aspect of the world in a rather special way. From the moment the utterance has been made, the legal, social and moral status holding between the two individuals is irrevocably altered. The newly created husband and wife have obligations and potential claims toward and against each other that they didn’t have prior to the utterance of these words. In some countries, even their tax status is altered. In short, language can be used to perform actions that have consequences in the real world.

But one doesn’t need the special status of a member of the clergy, a Prime Minister, or a sovereign to be able to alter aspects of the world through language. An everyday expression, such as Shut that door on the way out, also represents an action performed through language—in this, language bestows complete equality: We can all do it. This expression is an attempt to have someone do something, thereby altering an aspect of the world to suit our own wishes or desires.

Another way in which language fulfills its interactive function is that we can express our thoughts and feelings about the world. The expressions of terrorist and freedom fighter might be used to describe the same individual by different people with different perspectives and, different agendas. Using language to speak of a war on terror, or describing the campaign to criminalise abortion as Pro-life is more than mere wordplay. Language carries with it systems of ideas, words have concepts attached to them. Language use helps to frame or reframe particular issues, and this framing can be both positive and negative. Language has been described as a loaded weapon: it brings with it real-world consequences.

Language also plays a role in how we affect other people, and how we make others feel, achieved just by our choice of words. Compare the expressions: Shut up! versus I’m terribly sorry to interrupt you. While ostensibly conveying the same meaning, they affect our addressee in very different ways. This is because the way in which we present our public selves is conveyed, in large part, through language. The nature of the language we choose to use signals information about our attitudes towards others, ourselves, and the situations in which we find ourselves.

I’ve already intimated that the second key function of language is social interaction. For instance, we use language to engage in gossip, to get to know someone, to conduct business, to make a purchase in a shop, to attract members of the same or opposite sex, to declare undying love, and so forth. But how, exactly, do we make use of language to facilitate these social functions? We do so by engaging in culturally recognised activities to achieve (what are at least usually) mutually understood goals. Moreover, language use arises in these joint activities, which are otherwise often extremely difficult without it.

For example, imagine going to a shoe shop to purchase a pair of John Wayne cowboy boots. This involves a sales assistant approaching you and offering help, interacting with a sales assistant to have your feet measured, the assistant fetching the required cowboy boots from the stock room, agreeing on the purchase, making a payment, and the assistant boxing or wrapping the boots. This service encounter is an example of a culturally recognised joint activity. And crucially, it relies on language use to accomplish the desired outcome: The purchase of the boots. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the celebrated African-American writer, Toni Morrison, put things this way: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Language is clearly a big deal.


 Excerpted from The Language Myth (2014: Chapter 1; published by Cambridge University Press)