Although it seems that most languages are used to facilitate communication, some languages seem to have secondary purposes as well. For instance, expatriates of a nation may continue to speak the language of their homeland to preserve a tie to that land (example: Chinese in the United States). Likewise, a language may be used by a group to isolate itself from mainstream society (example: Yiddish in Israel). What other purposes might languages serve?

Edit: I am specifically referring to daily-use languages that do facilitate communication, but being used for a secondary purpose as well (as per the examples in the above paragraph). I am not referring to XML!

  • I believe this question lacks the opposition of communication x information. Because communication has more to do with socialization and would not be opposed to your examples, as I seem them. Information, would lack the subjectivity of socialization, like bee-dance "hey, found some flowers, they are 5km away, go north"
    – Tames
    Jun 19, 2012 at 15:35
  • All languages have internal uses, for organizing thoughts and memories, which vary greatly from one person to another (rather like people do :-), in addition to their external uses for communication, which vary about as much.
    – jlawler
    Jun 19, 2012 at 15:55
  • 2
    maybe this question should be about "which other purposes does language serve, other than information?"
    – Tames
    Jun 19, 2012 at 16:19
  • 1
    Urdu is used for capturing Somali pirates.
    – user483
    Jun 19, 2012 at 16:54
  • @jlovegren, do you mean as a shibboleth?
    – msh210
    Jul 1, 2012 at 21:44

3 Answers 3


Newspeak, a "deliberately impoverished" language designed to prevent people from communicating and thinking about subversive ideas.

While that example is fictional, Orwell also discussed politicized use of vagueness and other obscurantist rhetorical techniques. While that is still communicating ideas, (some of) the ideas are being communicated through choices in the use of language, rather than through the literal meaning of the words.

An example is consciously choosing to use/avoid certain words to make a political statement or a statement about group affinity:

  • "Politically correct" language, intended to show you are trying to avoid offending various groups
    • And as a reaction, intentionally using politically incorrect language (as well as the term "politically correct" itself).
    • Gender-neutral language: avoiding certain constructions perceived as causing offense by applying masculine forms to everyone. Also, proposing new gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Terms of abuse: besides demonizing outsiders, abusive terms can be used to reinforce group identity. Examples: ethnic slurs, insulting terms for political opponents, foreigners, rival sports teams, etc.
    • Reappropriation: approvingly using these terms can be a political statement, resulting in a reclaimed term.
  • In-groups may use argots and jargon understood only within the group, as a component of group identity.
  • Simply using terminology that presupposes the position of one side of a political debate. Examples:
    • In territorial disputes, using one side's language's name for the territory. Examples:
      • Argentine sources referring to the Falkland Islands using the Spanish name Malvinas when writing in English
      • Korean and Japanese sources using "Dokdo" and "Takeshima" respectively instead of the usual English name
    • Calling or refusing to describe the Armenian Genocide as such
    • Using or refusing to use various countries' preferred names
      • Republic of China / Taiwan
      • Democratic People's Republic of / North Korea
      • Myanmar / Burma
    • A republican Welsh MP who doesn't "recognise the Queen" referring to Queen Elizabeth II as "Mrs. Windsor". This was in a debate on national security (not on the form of government).
  • Shibboleths can be used to identify outsiders, often not by the content of the utterance, but by how the speaker uses (or is unable to use) the insiders' language.

A non-political sort: using forms of language to convey respect (or by refusing, lack thereof).


Every language is permeated by the cultural values in which it is immersed. Language may be determinant of what is and what is not acceptable in a situation. Just think about all the social constraints on politeness. These values define who is in and who is out of the group. How does one speak when giving a lecture? How does one speak when talking to his/her mom? The use of language will be determinant of professional and emotional acceptance. If you talk to your girlfriend like an academic lecturer she may be offended (or turned on by it, who knows).

One thing that comes to my mind now is Benveniste's comment on "shifters", like "me", "you", words that depend on the context for the determination of meaning. If you say "me", it is one person. If I say "me" it is another. Benveniste says that these "shifter" words are important and exist not only because it is a kind of "shortcut" for a name, but because of the socializating factor: as you say "me" in a dialogue, and the other person uses this word as well, it is a way of one person seeing the other as a fellow (it is like 'walking on your shoes').

An example of an specific language with some purpose, Esperanto, comes to my mind, as a language pretending to be universal and non-discriminating (almost a paradoxical statement). There's the experimental language E-Prime, which pretends to say things whitout using the verb "to be", as this would lack objectivity; E-Prime would be a statement on "language should be information", interestingly.

If your focus on use of language to avoid communication, this happens whenever people don't share a language. Those who share it will be communicating, and who doesn't dominate the code will be left out of the group. (adolescents using slangs keep their parents out of it, for example)

  • Check out Fillmore's Deixis Lectures. All languages have deictic phenomena like first and second person.
    – jlawler
    Jun 19, 2012 at 15:52
  • @jlawler: thanks for the suggestion. But my purpose in mentioning this was not for saying that deixis is specific of some language, rather I mentioned it for the purpose of demonstrating the socializing factor of languages. Maybe I was not clear enough, though.
    – Tames
    Jun 19, 2012 at 15:54
  • I think the question is a bit naive; now I think on it, of course, there are all kinds of languages that aren't used for communication, like conlangs, programming languages, and ritual languages. But they're not alive.
    – jlawler
    Jun 19, 2012 at 15:58
  • @jlawler: I guess that the person who proposed the question is just finding out that language is not only about information (I suggested this opposition as a comment to the question). I answered it supposing that this is the actual problem in question.
    – Tames
    Jun 19, 2012 at 16:01
  • @jlawler: Thanks, I edited the question to clarify what I meant.
    – dotancohen
    Jun 19, 2012 at 16:02
  • Language can be used for prayers so that the meaniong of prayers not lost in translation

  • Languages are used for singing. Some languages are associated with particular genres, for example Italian is associated with opera.

  • For expression of scientific topics that cannot be expressed in vernacular language (Latin in medieval Europe)

  • For writing high-style literature and poetry (high-style Kyrghyz as opposed to vernacular variant, book Norwegian)

  • Some sources claim that metropoly language in colonial countries serves as an instrument of oppression, so that for a successful carrier one have to learn a foreign language

  • Similarly, in some Baltic states state language is used to exclude ethnic minorities (mostly Russians) from political life and deprive them of citizenship.

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