What is holophrastic speech and why is my child using it?

The way Baby is learning to speak isn’t exactly like how an adult would learn a new language, but there are some similarities, and one of the big ones is that it’s a lot easier to memorize vocabulary than it is to understand sentence structure. Just like how, by the end of a year of studying French, you might be able to reel off a list of names of fruits, but have no idea how to ask a question you haven’t heard before, during the first few months after they say their first word, Baby might know a lot more names of objects in your home than they do of those little building-block words that native speakers use every day, like “and,” “the,” and “if.”

Early stages of speech

Every toddler’s language-learning journey has its own twists and turns, and no two look exactly alike, but most do pass a few common landmarks along the way. A few early stages of learning to speak include:

  • Naming: It only makes sense that names for objects are some of the earliest types of speech that start to make sense to most babies and toddlers. It’s very common for there to be a stretch of time when knowing the names for the things they already love, like “ball,” “dog,” or even “pie!” is the part of language that makes the most sense to them. Learning these names does help them learn the other parts of speech, since it helps them put the rest of a sentence in context.
  • Holophrastic speech: It’s not always obvious when naming shifts into holophrastic speech, since it’s still just made up of individual words, but holophrastic speech happens when toddlers have whole sentences full of ideas in their heads, but their language skills limit them to providing the highlights in one-word chunks. Little words like “bunny,” “nap,” and “no!” can all contain great big ideas, and toddlers count on expressions, tone, context, and a little psychic ability from their caregivers to fill in the rest of the message.
  • Telegraphic speech: Named for telegrams, which stayed short because they were charged by the word, telegraphic speech is the short sentences of two or three words long, most of which involve a subject and a verb, that grow into holophrastic speech’s place as toddlers grow into a greater understanding of language.

Moving on from holophrastic speech

In a very basic way, the reason that children move on from holophrastic speech, and then, later, from telegraphic speech, is because they learn more words. While holophrastic speech is more efficient in some ways – it saves a lot of breath, cutting out all but one of the words in a sentence – the time saved by only saying one word is pretty much cancelled out by the amount of guessing the people they're talking to have to do to make sure they know what they mean.

That’s because holophrastic speech relies on context clues to get its point across. When Baby shrieks, “Kitty!” it’s their face and tone of voice that tells you whether they're saying, “Kitty, my best friend, how I’ve missed you so,” or “keep that terrifying and vicious creature away from me!”

Context clues aren’t always so clear, though, which is why most toddlers toddle their way through the two-word sentences of telegraphic speech next, learning more and more about grammar and syntax every day, until they’re saying longer sentences you’d be able to understand without even a single clue.

  • “Child Language Acquisition.” Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania. The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, 2017. Web.
  • Elizabeth Purnell. “Holophrastic Hypothesis Revisited.” Functionalism and Formalism in Linguistics: Case studies. Mike Darnell. John Benjamins Publishing Company. 1999. Web.

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