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DIALOGUE #1: Language
Language is like onions (or ogres): It has layers. In this post, I'll take you through the "Six Functions of Language", and how they might prove helpful for your writing.
Posted on 31 January 2021 0 Comments
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Don’t Underestimate Language

(Once again, the necessary disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

Maybe it was only my university – but there’s not one literature student I’ve ever met that wasn’t tired of hearing about Russian linguist Roman Jakobson and his thoughts on the Six Functions of Language. I certainly don’t remember much of my studies, but I doubt I’ll ever forget old Romochka’s teachings.

I’m not bringing this up because I want you to suffer alongside me. Nor am I mindlessly passing old information along to you, just so I didn’t learn it in vain. – There’s a reason so many students learn about Jakobson: The man knew what he was talking about.

But most importantly, you can use his ideas in improving, or maybe even perfecting your dialogue, and in consequence your narration. For us writers, language is the material we work with. What we try to twist and shape, and sometimes even control, by the power of our wits alone. It can’t hurt to know more about the wild beast we’re trying to tame – right?

The Six Functions of Language

Basically, Jakobson did something deceptively simple: He identified the elements of language in use and assigned a specific function to them. Interestingly, Karl Bühler and Schulz von Thun, two German psychologists, each did something really similar. But, unlike Jakobson’s magnificent six functions of language, those other two only talked about a measly three or mediocre four.

What they could all agree on is this: When language is used, you’ll at least have a message, a sender and a receiver – someone says something to someone else. Now, Jakobson adds to his a context, a channel and a code: What are they talking about? How is the exchange of messages upheld? And what kind of language do they use?

This results in this graphic. You’ll probably have seen it in some textbook or other, but here it is again:

If this information seems overwhelming – don’t worry. It’s really easy. Let’s discuss.

Sender and Emotive Language

Every message – whether it be a moving soliloquy on the state of the world or a semi-ironic collection of tweets about the underrepresentation of furless animals on daytime sitcoms – has a sender. The person who speaks, writes or simply delivers the message. And in creating a message, the sender inevitably reveals something about themselves. – (Unless, of course, they are some type of AI. But I’ll assume you’re not.)

We call this function of language emotive function. It tells us what is going on in someone’s head, and why someone might say what they’re saying.

Think of this phrase: “The sun is shining.” It does sound rather factual, sure. But it might reveal different things about me – depending on how and in which context I say it: If it’s a Saturday, I’m waking up and look outside with a smile on my face and shout it, you’d presume I’m happy and excited. If it’s Tuesday, and I’m sitting over my work for the day, brooding, longingly glancing out the window, the same phrase might sound defeated and sad.

And here’s where our duty as writers comes into play: We need to make sure that our readers understand the emotion behind each piece of dialogue. And we need to make sure that there is emotion there in the first place. Without emotion, your dialogue will fall flat.

Here’s a caveat: People are amazing liars, and nowhere is that more clear than in the use of emotive language. We might say something very cheerful just to mask our underlying anger. We might make ourselves sound hurt, just to manipulate someone into feeling guilty. – You should use this ambiguity in your writing. You should use subtext, and irony, and all that jazz. But make sure to mark it appropriately.

Also, don’t forget: You might be the “sender” of your novel, but you are not the sender of every message your novel contains. In fact, your message creates a narrator whose message, in turn, creates characters that send messages to each other.

Of course, your novel will have an emotional or emotive theme. Of course, your narrator will reveal some of their emotions by simply narrating. But be careful not to mix them, or your audience might get confused. If you’re curious about those “layers of communication“, check out this post.

Receiver and Conative Language

Picture this: You’re a teenager again. The whole weekend, you did nothing but watch TV and play video games. All of a sudden, your mother bursts in and says, quite angrily: “The sun is shining.” – You wouldn’t think she just wanted to give you the weather report. There’s more to her message than that.

Your hypothetical mother has just demonstrated to you what the “conative function of language” is. It’s the function that is directed at the receiver. That wants to illicit a reaction in them.

In this example, your mother wants you to stop wasting time and go outside for a change. But it doesn’t have to be this direct. Maybe, if I say something to you, I just want you to acknowledge my thoughts. Maybe I want you to feel a specific emotion. Or I want you to take the bait and start a fight. – There are as many intentions as there are human beings, if not more.

The important thing to remember for your writing is this: Your characters shouldn’t have dialogue in which they don’t want something from the other person. Every conversation should come with clear goals for all participants. Talking for talking’s sake doesn’t make great fiction.

By the way: This goes also for your narrator, especially first-person narrators. I find that the best stories give you a reason they are told. In Israel Rank, the narrator wants you to acknowledge his brilliance. In Endless Nights, he wants you to share his bad conscience. In How I Met Your Mother Ted wants to get permission to pursue an old romantic interest. – This is not only oddly satisfying but also engages readers heavily with your novel. And that should be the main goal, after all.

Context and Referential Language

The referential function of language might be the easiest of the six: After all, we need something to talk about. So, we constantly refer to the things we talk about. If I say “The sun is shining”, I’m referring to the fact that the sun is shining. Simple as that.

While not too complicated in theory, this can sometimes pose a real challenge for writers: We need to make sure that the reader is aware of the context the characters are moving in to understand what they’re talking about. On the other hand, dialogue can help shape out these contexts in a reader’s mind.

Also, never forget that you can have a lot of fun with contexts: You could make your characters misunderstand what the others are talking about. You could have a character purposefully use ambiguous language. You could even fool your reader into thinking a message is about one thing, and later reveal that it’s about something totally different. – Mysteries and thrillers are great at toying with context. Check out Endless Night by Agatha Christie, for example, or the critically acclaimed Gone Girl.

Channel and Phatic Language

Sometimes, language is simply used to create a channel for further communication: A simple “Hello” to start a talk, a “?” sent to a crush after he failed to answer to your third message. Or maybe an awkward “The sun is shining”, when trying to start small talk with a stranger.

Once the channel has been opened, the phatic function disappears into the background. Of course, every word spoken still serves to keep the channel open and the conversation flowing – but you don’t really concentrate on it. It’s a subconscious thing.

At first glance, the phatic function doesn’t hold much use for aspiring writers. And truth be told, you probably won’t use it much. But sometimes it pays to take a closer look at the interesting part of phatic language – the opening and closing of a channel.

Whenever a character tries to open a conversation but is ignored, or whenever a character tries to close a conversation but is forced to go on, there is conflict. And conflict means story.

I found that a great way to enhance dialogue is by making one (or maybe even several) of the characters an unwilling participant. The resulting tension will help you get away with such controversial things as planting exposition.

Code and Metalingual Language

The metalingual function of language, in short, is language that talks about itself. Or rather it talks about the specific code that it uses – English for example: “No, Karl-Heinz! How often must I tell you? It’s “The sun IS SHINING.”, not “The sun shines.”

Now, as far as I know, your characters and your narrator won’t often use this specific function, unless they’re Professor Higgins (My Fair Lady) or other types of language enthusiasts. Or maybe you’re writing a novel about grammar. Then go ahead, use it as much as you can.

For every other case, I want to give you an example where this very function of language is used to enhance a conflict – and very successfully, might I add. Take this exchange from Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along:

Old friends let you go your own way.

Help you find your own way.

Let you off when you’re wrong.

If you’re wrong.

When you’re wrong.

Message and Poetic Language

And finally, there is the poetic function of language. The function that is focused on the message itself, i.e. how its content is worded. When looking at language from a poetic viewpoint, we must ask ourselves: Which word is chosen in combination with which other words to deliver the overall message?

I know it sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. It’s basically word choices that create a specific atmosphere: “The sun is shining” has the same meaning as “The celestial body is radiating light”, but they don’t have the same tone. Neither does “The eye of heaven douses us in its brightness.” – We can say something in a wide array of tones and atmospheres, and your characters should, too.

In your own writing, you can use it for two purposes: For one, you can make sure each of your characters speaks in their own voice. This doesn’t have to be as extreme as my example, of course.

And then again, you can use it to improve your narration. If you’re writing a dark and brooding tale, you probably wouldn’t say “The stars twinkled in the sky. and brightened the street” You’d write something like “Starlight pierced the night sky and shattered on the pavement.” – Simple things can vastly change the quality of your writing.

We’ve only scratched the surface of poetic function, but I guess it’s enough to get you started. My best advice is: Treat your novel as if it were a poem. Choose every word as carefully as you would when writing a haiku or a sonnet, and you’ll be good.

What Can We Learn from this?

This might be one of my longest posts yet. I hope, however, that you found it useful. Let me know in the comments what you think of Jakobson, and what other theories help you when writing dialogues. Until then, here’s my handy summary:

  1. Make sure that your dialogue and your narration don’t only convey one thing: Give them subtext, emotion, demands, etc.
  2. Play with misunderstandings, lies and unwillingness to talk, if you want to increase the tension of your dialogue.
  3. Give your narrator a reason to tell their story. This increases the stakes of the story and makes it seem more realistic at the same time.
  4. Don’t think of your dialogue as separate from the narration: The context of the story informs the dialogue and vice versa.
  5. You should have fun with language in any way you can. However, only use language in a way that fits into the mindset of the character that’s using it – including the narrator.
  6. Word choice matters. Always be aware of what atmosphere certain words and phrases might create, especially when talking about narration.
  7. Language has so many layers. The best way to explore them is to write as much and as often as you can.

Happy writing,

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