Logos Multilingual Portal

10 - Verbal communication - Part 1

We have dealt quite thoroughly with the mental aspects of the reading, writing, and translating processes. Now, we will examine some less individual aspects of the exchange (translation) of information, to see what actually happens when language involves many people in communication. In order to do that, we will draw especially on the writings of Roman JAkobsón, a great Russian scientist who - driven by an interdisciplinary attitude - made fundamental contributions to an impressive number of fields, such as linguistics, semiotics, theory of literature, translation studies.


GOLDMAN W. (Marathon man)


  Back in 1958, in his essay Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics - which is still mostly up-to-date after more than forty years - JAkobsón examined the six main elements that characterize communication and their related functions.

  The addresser is the person who sends out the message, addressing an addressee, within the framework of a given context. The two following tables are taken from one of JAkobsón's texts:

Factors of verbal communication:1





Fundamental functions of verbal communication2:





The referential function

  The context is extremely important. In most cases, decontextualized utterances become meaningless or, at any rate, very ambiguous. This is basically due to the fact that communication is very efficient and tends not to make explicit - hence to take for granted - some aspects of the message that are considered to be implied (i.e. context-bound). If, on a bus, a ticket collector says "Your ticket, please", it would sound rather redundant to explain what ticket he is referring to: the context makes it clear.

If, for example, we come across the utterance

Is it safe?

out of context, the utterance is ambiguous, polysemic; it can imply an impersonal or personal construction and refer to an indefinite number of things/people. That is exactly what experiences Babe, the main character of William Goldman's Marathon Man, when another character places him under interrogation to force him to confess something he does not know. His torturer keeps on asking him "Is it safe?", and Babe gives him any possible answer, attaching any possible meaning to the question, making every effort to put an end to that torment. And the torturer seems to deliberately avail himself of the ambiguity of that question, on the one hand to be able to repeat incessantly the same, insisting sentence and, on the other, to ask - through a single sentence - a polysemic question, appealing to the tortured man's possible reticence.

  Through this example, we can see very clearly what is the referential function that JAkobsón talks about, as well as the importance of the context of the utterance.

  In addition, in the ad language, the ambiguity of a decontextualized utterance can be useful, thanks to its inherent polysemy and interpretive ambiguity. Many advertising slogans are based on this principle.

The emotional function

  The addresser-based function is called emotional or expressive. It is that part of the message which supplies information about the person who is sending the message, about the "first person" of the communicative situation. JAkobsón cites, as a typical example of emotional function, the interjections, which - according to the scholar - are not elements of the sentence, but complete sentences. "Pooh", "upsidaisy", "tut-tut" are actually complete expressions, which can be uttered separately and give a clear idea of the addresser's mood. "A man, using expressive features to indicate his angry or ironic attitude, conveys ostensible information [...]"3.

  The intonation of the message can be another form through which the emotional function manifests itself. JAkobsón tells about one sentence that an actor uttered fifty times in order to convey fifty different situations, which the audience unmistakably deciphered. Hence, the emotional function is extremely important to point the message in the right direction too.

The conative function

  Still within the framework of the fundamental group, we will now deal with the conative function, namely the one that refers to the addressee. The addressee, the "second person" of the situation, may be implicit, but may sometimes be emphasized, which occurs especially in the vocative and in the imperative. In the vocative, this happens because the addressee is invoked ("Listen, oh Lord!"), in the imperative because he is given an order ("Get out of my way!").

  The term "conative" originates from the Latin verb conari, "to tempt", and it means "persuasive". Actually, both the orders of the imperative and the invocations of the vocative have the purpose of persuading the addressee to do something.

  In the next units, we will examine the remaining three functions of the verbal communication.


JAkobsón R. Language in Literature. Ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge (Massachusetts), Belknap Press, 1987. ISBN 0-674-5128-3.

1 JAkobsón 1987, p. 66.
2 JAkobsón 1987, p. 71.
3 JAkobsón 1987, p. 67.