Theories of Language

There have been different theories of language. Essentially, they are the different perspectives to view the diverse and complex word of verbal communication. Below is a brief chronological description of different language theories.

In the classical Greece and Rome, the focus of language study was the effective use of language, especially on rhetorical structures and stylistic excellence. They had a mystical view of language because they found language had a supernatural power in cursing, blessing, divining and exorcism. They believed language had inherently embedded insights on the nature of reality.

About at the same time there was a different approach to language emerged in India, as exemplified by the Sanskrit grammar of Panini. This grammar, developed sometimes in the period of 352 to 150 B.C., details the features of sound, word formulation and syntax of classical Sanskrit.

During the medieval period language became the tool of philosophy and logic, and Latin grammar became the model for pedagogical grammars of most Western European languages.

At the end of the 18th century the discovery of the Panini’s Sanskrit grandma had greatly changed the scholarly views about language in Western Europe. Scholars realized that Sanskrit was closely related to almost all Western European languages. This encouraged a period of intense and exhaustive study on the history of and differences between various languages. 

Then a different view of languages, a descriptive approach, was established as exemplified in Saussure’s contribution which highlighted the distinction between a historical view of language development (diachronic) and a description of language at a particular point of time (synchronic).

There were important developments in the structural study of language. Weinreinch contributed significantly to the understanding of the role of semantics in language structure. The semantic approach became so popular that it was used to explain almost everything in language.

Then there appeared a great deal of suspicionon the role of semantics. Scholars in Eastern Europe and North American developed different views in the structural study of language. For example, the Prague School focused on phonology and discourse, while Bloomfield emphasized on item and arrangement which was later adapted to be known as Tagmemics – a system focuses on spots, filters and hierarchical structures.

By elaborating networks of relations within and between strata, a stratificational approach to language was prompted by Sydney Lamb and Adam Makkai. Then there was the famous transformational-generative grandma (T-G grammar) raised by Noam Chomsky who argued to look at language from the dynamic perspective – a series of transformations from an abstract underlying base to the surface structure. In this theory, syntax is focal.

The T-G grammar evoked critiques and also inspired developments in language study. A type of generative semantics was developed to start from an underlying semantics level rather than an abstract and underlying syntax. Also, T-G grammar has indirectly prompted the development of sociolinguistics – a theory with emphasis on language as used in a society.

During the 20th century a functional approach was rather popular in anatomizing languages. In the early stage the focus was on how languages work and then it was well developed by Halliday into a theory of systemic grammar which focuses on a dynamic system and can treat numerous phases of language.

Sperber and Wilson developed a new way to explore language which emphasizes the role of relevance in language design and practice. It was rather prevailing at then time to seek single principles and structures to explore language. For example, Chomsky employed “autonomous syntax”, while Halliday and Hasan applied cohesion as a unifying principle.

Semiotics has been the universal approach to languages, with Peirce and Wittenstein as the star contributors. Language has been recognized as a system of signs. Therefore, it is widely believed that semiotics could provide insights to understand how the linguistic code works.

Although no one theory is adequate enough to embody the complexity of verbal communication, all these different theories of language provide important insights into the nature of language.

Functions of language: Sociological

Generally, when people use language to relate to or influence others, they are applying the sociological functions of language. There are basically five types of such functions: interpersonal, informative, imperative, performative, and emotive.

As for the interpersonal function of language, it is about how people use language to negotiate and/or maintain social status. In most languages, there are distinct registers, such as ritual, formal, informal, casual and intimate speech. People make use of language in different registers to help establish themselves in society and maintain relations with one another. For example, people who want to increase their power often try to imitate the speech of those in power. A speaker or writer who wants to develop greater solidarity with the audience usually attempts to use the same register that the target audience uses and appreciates. Besides, it frequently happens that language is used not to say something relevant but just to maintain a relationship, which can be well explained by the cleverly social chattering at cocktail parties.

The use of speech or writing to influence the cognitive content or state of others is the informative function of language. This function is always part of other functions. Besides, to maximize the formative function of language it should be built on the existing cognitive state of the receptor.

The imperative function of language is about the attempts to influence the behavior of receptors. This can be done through commands, exhortations and even more effectively by means of smart jokes, suitable illustrations, searching questions, etc. Its application, with lots of a verbal negotiating, implies a measure of authority or power, although its effectiveness involves the receptor’s self-interest.

The performative function of language involves a change in the status of the receptor. The speeches themselves are expected to establish a different status of an object, such as the speech used in solemnizing a marriage. Mostly, performative language is highly ritualized and fixed in form which ensures the power and prestige of such speech.

The emotive function of language involves affecting the emotive state of receptors. For this reason, it profoundly exploits the associative or connotative meanings of words. This function may be understood as the most powerful and fearful aspect of language – because the emotions that can be influenced is unlimited. Language can kindle numerous emotions, from religious devotions to hilarious laughters. This function is the object for various groups, from professional linguists to powerful politicians.

In fact, most speeches and writings involve several different functions of language and in different proportions.

Functions of language: psychological

Language has diverse functions which are of two basic types: psychological and sociological. This short essay represents the psychological functions of language.

There are five essential psychological functions of language: naming, stating, modeling of reality, expression and cognition.

Finding names to experience and items is a psychological necessity. However, this need is so obvious that people mostly don’t realize its importance. It is essentially significant to have symbols/names to identify and even control things. In fact, finding the right word to symbolize some object or event seems to give some control over such things.

Stating is to say something about the object and event that are named. This is why there are subjective-predicate statements and topic-comment statements. Besides, since single propositions are too limited to meet certain psychological needs, it is natural to link together strings of sentences.

Modeling of the reality is the more profound function developed by people. In some sense, people instinctively felt words should provide a system for viewing the world – verbal symbols could reflect a reality, although imperfectly. From a different perspective, language is used to model reality in four major semantic classes of lexemes: 1) entities, e.g. daisy, water, tree, 2) activities, e.g. cry, laugh, run, 3) characteristics, primarily qualities and quantities, e.g. good, numerous, quickly, and 4) relations, e.g. in, because, during.

Another psychological function of language is expression – give vent to a person’s own feelings. It could be emotive responses to some event, e.g. ouch, damn it, and oh boy. It can also be a matter of playing with words which small children often love to do. Expressive language might be for the purpose of aesthetics. Words are arranged to form balance, proportion, symmetry and rhythm to formulate a certain psychological atmosphere.

Cognition, using language to think, is possibly the most important psychological function of language. Whatever style the thinking is performed, language is involved. This is a process of manipulating verbal symbols within brain.

Paradoxes of translating

Translating is an intricate and enchanting task.  There are many paradoxes in this particularly complex human practice. Below is a brief note from Language, Culture and Translating, the masterpiece of Eugene Nida, the theoretician of translation, father of dynamic equivalence theory.

It is popularly assumed that close and literal translation equals faithfulness to the source text. But the fact is that literal renderings are often misleading. Because there are many discrepancies between meanings and structures of different languages. Interestingly, while some people, who are concerned with figurative language and complex poetic structures, insist that translating is impossible, more and more translations are done and done well.

There is some contention about the validity of paraphrase (or adaptation if you well) when it comes to translating. Some argue that translating is valid but paraphrase is wrong. In fact, all translating involves differing degrees of paraphrase. It is out of the question that one can successfully translate word for word or structure for structure. The truth is that languages do not differ essentially in what they can say, but in how they say it. Therefore, paraphrase is inevitable. The key point is to ensure the semantic legitimacy of the paraphrase.

Another paradox holds that stylistic editing should be proceeded by a somewhat literal rendering – first produce a literal translating of the source and then improve it stylistically. However, style is the hard core which must be built into the translation from the very beginning. It can be put in this way: A few errors in the correspondences of lexical meanings are more excusable than missing the spirit and aesthetic quality of the source.

Then there is a paradox about translators themselves. It is true that translating is a skill which can be taught and then mastered by considerable practice. However, exceptional translators are born rather than made. They need to have outstanding aptitudefor the creative use of language. Well, this can be categorized into “Nature VS. Nurture”.

As the descending and thriving of computers and Internet, some people find it paradoxical for the existence of human translators. Modern technologies help human a lot, but when it comes to creative contents, such as advertising brochures and lyric poetry, computer printouts are basically useless. Human translators will always be indispensable as long as the text is stylistically appealing and semantically complex – which carry the essential message that is worth communicating in the target language. Human brain is not only digital and analogic but also has an established system of values which gives it a componentially incalculable advantage over machines.

Another paradox of translating is that there is never a completely perfect translation. Both the language and culture are in the process of change. Furthermore, language is an open system with overlapping meanings and fuzzy boundaries. Mostly, the biggest problem in translating is not to find the right equivalent in the target language but to thoroughly understand the designative and associative meaning of the source text.

A further paradox of translating is the general assumption that a bilingual person equals a translator or interpreter. The truth is that knowing two languages is far from enough. It is essential to be familiar with the respective cultures. Besides, the capacity to write well is another important quality to become a good translator. As for becoming a competent interpreter, it is imperative to have a quick mind to organize andformulate a response.

There is also a paradox of the language itself. Language not only represents reality but also distorts it. Sunsetand sunrise are the perfect examples of the parallax between language and reality – we all know the sun doesn’t set or rise. Unfortunately, people often don’t recognize such parallax in language and even are accustomed to accept verbal formulation as being the absolute truth. 

In general, the paradoxes of translating are basically the paradoxes of language and of culture.



我体验的是Translator App上的语音翻译功能以及网页版Bing Microsoft Translator上的文本翻译功能。













杜嘉班纳原计划于本月20号在上海发布其品牌的时装大秀The Great Show,为了预热,发布了“致敬中国文化”的美食系列短片《起筷吃饭》。如果要列举中国和意大利的共同之处,美食无疑是最显著最安全的切入点。













– 流畅度不够,表现在容易卡壳儿,恩啊filler太多
– 语法容易乱,比如s/he、单复数、时态会混了
– 逻辑性偏差,容易前言不搭后语


  1. 刻意训练——雅思口语

IELTS Speaking是我发现的非常棒的自我训练方式。雅思口语以话题为主导,考察日常语言交流能力,强调逻辑性、流畅度、语法、词汇。而且,有充足的训练资源,比如智能对练软件、各种雅思口语资源网站、专业的雅思口语培训书籍。我个人认为,用雅思口语来自我训练,能比较迅速地找回口语表达的感觉。比如以下话题,用一分钟准备,两分钟内讲完。

Describe a place you would like to travel to that is far away from where you live. You should say:
– Where is it
– How you would like to go there
– What you would do there
– And explain why you would like to go there


  1. 实际应用



  1. 英语写作



这几个星期,连续做了几批Assessor & Test Reviewer的工作,有的是帮助英国翻译协会评估新的认证译员,有的是帮助翻译公司筛选新译者或者帮助赢取试译的新项目。除了一两份非常精彩,一看就是老译骨手笔,其他大部分都是领域新手的样态。


为了所谓的客观,要对每一处修改进行错误类型归类,并标记每处问题的严重程度(比如Minor, Major, Critical),然后逐一列出原文、译文、修改、修改原因,最后再就整体质量写一段小结。一开始比较怀念吃掉的语言学和语法课,写评估内容也不太适应。不过好在每种错误类型都有明确定义和规范,温故知新起来也比较有的放矢,另外也可以对号入座。但有意思的是,有时正是因为规范地太明确了,反倒入不了座。比如原译文就是啰嗦,可没有哪个错误类型是啰嗦(排除其他硬伤,比如术语,可以归入Style或者Rewording的范畴)。























未来一星期的目标是篇目训练速度达到50字/分钟。努力实现这个脑袋拍出来的数字 :)