The Three Functions of Language

In his book, The Information, James Gleick touches upon the ways in which language serves as the conveyer of information, which I found particularly interesting in relation to how our computers engage with language. That being said, after taking the time to reflect on the various functions of my computer, I am beginning to recognise that there seems to a connection between the ways our computers recognise information, directions, and expressions and the ways in which we, as English speakers, manipulate language to carry out these three functions. 

I was specifically intrigued by Gleick’s argument: “With words we begin to leave traces behind us like breadcrumbs: memories in symbols for others to follow.” (Gleick 31). As an English major, when I think of the English language, I enjoy paying close attention to the function of symbols. At the micro level, I believe symbols begin first as characters (similar to the keys on our keyboard) that are formed into groups, which become words that can represent various definitions. From there, we group these words into unique combinations in order to convey meaningful sentences and functions that we as students of the humanities, later unpack or deconstruct for depth, significance, and meaning. 

Gleick’s observation about symbols in language is a notion that I am currently engaging with in Dr. Lydia Kertz’s Chaucer and His World course. As we read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, our class is encouraged to think about the Middle English text and its respective translations. Oftentimes one word can have various spellings but essentially represent the same idea. Take for instance, the noun tyranny, which appears as tirrannie, tirauni, tireni, and thirannie in the middle english text yet each variation of the word still represents the usual characteristics of a cruel despot. Gleick makes a clever observation when he points out: “words were fugitive, on the fly, expected to vanish again thereafter” (Gleick 53). This concept makes the most sense to me when I think about Chaucer’s pilgrims engaging in storytelling because they are all essentially spinning their own tales and the language they use is fleeting. So it becomes Chaucer’s responsibility as the the writer, to document these tales and decide which variation of a word or symbol he will use to represent the meaning of the story. In a sense, Chaucer as the documenter is also engaging with the informative function of language because these tales teach us as modern readers about the social changes, religious tensions, and various lifestyles of late medieval England.

That being said, when I reconsider the functions and symbols that I manipulate on my keyboard, I realise that I am also engaging with the informative function of language when I use my computer. For instance, when I need information on locating a file on my desktop, I simply use the Command-spacebar combination and I can easily request a search. The same concept can be applied when I use the Command-F combination to locate a particular phrase in a document or webpage. In addition to manipulating my computer’s informative function of language, I am also engaging with the directive functions. For example, when I want to take a screenshot of the entire screen, I simply press Command-Shift-3 and my computer immediately recognises my command. While it is evident that our computers can carry out commands and requests, they can also engage in expressive language as well. In chapter two, Glieck posits that one way of deciphering Marshall McLuhan’s critique of print “would be to say that print offers only a narrow channel of communication. The channel is linear and even fragmented…If the ideal of communication is a meeting of souls, then writing is a sad shadow of the ideal” (Gleick 43). While McLuhan may be justified in his belief that communication ought to be a meeting of souls, I do not necessarily agree that print is the antithesis of this ideal. Communication is not limited to gestures or touch, in fact, when we direct our computers to italicise, bold, or underline certain words or phrases by using combinations like Command-I, Command-B, and Command-U we are engaging in the expressive function of language. The functions that we use not only provide emphasis to the ideas that we want to convey, but it also expresses emotions and attitudes as well. 

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