Words, Words, Words!

Words, Words, Words!

 Posted by Susan Shand on January 13, 2013 at 7:20 PM Comments comments (2)


As poets the toys we play with are words. The artist may mess about with colour and paint, the sculptor with stone and clay, but for us words are the raw material of our creativity. There is a difference between finger painting poster paint and Titian. There is a difference between Henry Moore and Playdough. There is a difference between chatting on the bus home from work and poetry. Apart from a short period when it was fashionable in Britain to write shopping lists and to declare it poetry, mostly poetry is about using words in a skillful and creative way.


 What can words do? What DO they do?


On my trip around the bazaars this weekend I was reminded of this little bit of theory nicely presented…


(BTW, Jakobson is a Structuralist …they like lists.)


“According to the linguist Roman Jakobson, language has six functions, and everything we say has at least one function. The phrase ‘It is raining’ could potentially mean six different things. The unanswerable question remains – who are we, and why are we saying ‘It is raining?’ Try it out with any phrase or sentence :


1. The Referential Function

“It is raining” – I am a weatherman and I’m telling you it’s raining.

2. The Emotive Function

“It is raining” – It’s raining inside me; I am telling you that I’m crying.

3. The Conative Function

“It is raining!” – I am your mother and I’m telling you to put your coat on! Can’t you see it’s raining?!

4. The Poetic Function

“It is raining.” – I am a poet/marketing strategist/song-writer. ‘It is raining’ is a catchy slogan with a repetition of the ‘I’ sound. It aurally complies with what I am trying to create. I care about nothing unless it’s for its own sake.

5. The Phatic Function

“It is raining.” – I am on a date with you and am feeling nervous. I’m saying “It is raining” to fill the air with words. To announce my presence. To start a conversation. (“How are you?” has the same function)

6. The Metalingual Function

“It is raining.” – I am questioning what it is’? Il pleut, es regnet – why, in our languages, does it rain? The it, in ‘it is raining’ is a profound grammatical and philosophical mystery.” [1]


Now you might want to argue with these categories, other people have; but it may be a start to working out the variation of the colours we have to work with and how our colours are mixed.


Notice how the Referential seems to be factual and straightforward, whereas the Emotive and the Conative use words to refer indirectly to some other unspoken words. The Emotive, in a metaphorical way, replaces the factual with something that it feels similar to. The Conative uses a kind of shorthand to indicate a mutually understood but unspoken extension to the conversation, it refers to other meanings. The ‘Poetic Function’ hones in on the qualities of sound, rhyming, and rhythm of language rather than any other quality which may be present in poetry. The Phatic is a space-filling activity where the words don’t mean anything in themselves but the activity of saying them may have a social function. We understand for instance, that when someone says “Hello, how are you?” they don’t actually want an update on your hernia operation and your arthritic hip. The Metalingual function is what Linguists do a lot and in a sense what we are doing now, digging around in the works to see what things are made of. We are not concerned with the doing of poetry here, making the engine function, but instead we are digging around inside the engine itself looking at the cogs and wheels.


Jaques Derrida added, and we might tag it to the list… 

7. The Deconstructive

“It is raining” – I am inviting you to explore your memory for the meanings of rain.


This is more or less what I was doing earlier in the blog when I was talking about ducks and flies. The meaning of words is in our own ownership. In order to know what is meant by something, all we have to do is to search our own internal archichives for the associations. My associations are just as valid as the Collins English Dictionary’s or any Academic definitions, and so is yours. We work with these meanings in complex ways on a daily basis. My meanings for “rain” may be quite different from someone who lives in a desert area but both are equally valid and valuable. We may want to refer to dictionaries for clarification but essentially, the understandings of common usage meanings are ahead of dictionary publication, not behind it. That is, that dictionaries go out and find out what words are being used to mean and then include that in the next edition. They don’t decide for us what things mean, they reflect the meanings we are already using.


Julia Kristeva added,

 8. The Somatic

“It is raining” – I am inviting you to explore on a non-verbal level what is your experience of rain.


This is the experiential, the non-conceptual, non-verbal, mind and body engagement with the stimulous of words. It is treating words as though they were musical notes and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into our inner experiencing as a result of that stimulous. It is engaging the brain in a non-logical activity of ‘daydreaming’ or of associative remembering. We are not naming or describing the rain, we are remembering (or imagining) how it feels on our skin and what it sounds like and all the other things it may bring up into our conscious immediacy of re-experiencing.


This is what I believe we do in the background when we are fully absorbed into a book or story. Or with poetry, when we allow the words to wash over us and stimulate more than our thinking, to reach our experiencing. My earlier discussion about kigo touched on this idea and I believe that haiku, at their very best, use this function and invite this approach from us. We must though, be willing to slip into that deeper engagement. Not just to pass our minds over the intellectual, the factual, but to step into the scene as though in a story and to experience with the writer. As writers ourselves, if we write from this place then our reader has access to it too. If we write from our intellect then that is the only place we are inviting them to see with us, the clever workings of our minds in manipulating words. The somatic is a space where only honesty lives.



(stardate 20130113)








2 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words!

  1. Gene Doty 01:07 PM on January 17, 2013
    Really enjoyed this, Susan. The additions to Jakobson’s six functions are good. I used J’s framework in teaching writing, as one way students could understand their purposes more clearly. Even in technical writing, there are conative and phatic elements. And then the framework should be abandoned. –Gino

  2. Susan Shand 01:41 PM on January 17, 2013
    Gene Doty says…
    Really enjoyed this, Susan. The additions to Jakobson’s six functions are good. I used J’s framework in teaching writing, as one way students could understand their purposes more clearly. Even in technical writing, there are conative and phatic elements. And then the framework should be abandoned. –Gino

    Yes, I agree. But it does no harm to be able to say how things work, even if you then cease to be actively aware of the workings. We aren’t usually conscious of our sentence structures when communicating, for instance; but being able to describe the structure of a particular sentence is a useful skill. Equally, being able to pick something apart to show its underlying meaning is revealing and indeed something I do a lot. Thank you Gene, its good to know someone read this one.

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