Holophrase in Language Acquisition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Mother beside baby playing with a toy
A single holophrase may express a variety of complex meanings. "For example," says Spencer A. Rathus, "Mama may be used by the child to signify meanings as varied as 'There goes Mama,' 'Come here, Mama,' and 'You are Mama'" (Childhood and Adolescence: Voyages in Development, 2017). PeopleImages/Getty Images

A holophrase is a single word (such as OK) that is used to express a complete, meaningful thought.

In studies of language acquisition, the term holophrase refers more specifically to an utterance produced by a child in which a single word expresses the type of meaning typically conveyed in adult speech by an entire sentence. Adjective: holophrastic.

Rowe and Levine note that some holophrases are "utterances that are more than one word, but are perceived by children as one word: I love you, thank you, Jingle Bells, there it is" (A Concise Introduction to Linguistics, 2015).

Holophrases in Language Acquisition

"[A]round six months children begin babbling and eventually imitating the linguistic sounds they hear in the immediate environment. . . . By the end of the first year, the first true words emerge (mama, dada, etc.). In the 1960s, the psycholinguist Martin Braine (1963, 1971) noticed that these single words gradually embodied the communicative functions of entire phrases: e.g. the child's word dada could mean 'Where is daddy?' 'I want daddy,' etc. according to situation. He called them holophrastic, or one-word, utterances. In situations of normal upbringing, holophrases reveal that a vast amount of neuro-physiological and conceptual development has taken place in the child by the end of the first year of life. During the holophrastic stage, in fact, children can name objects, express actions or the desire to carry out actions, and transmit emotional states rather effectively."

(M. Danesi, Second Language Teaching. Springer, 2003)

"Many of children's early holophrases are relatively idiosyncratic and their uses can change and evolve over time in a somewhat unstable manner. . . . In addition, however, some of children's holophrases are a bit more conventional and stable. . . .

"In English, most beginning language learners acquire a number of so-called relational words such as more, gone, up, down, on, and off, presumably because adults use these words in salient ways to talk about salient events (Bloom, Tinker, and Margulis, 1993; McCune, 1992). Many of these words are verb particles in adult English, so the child at some point must learn to talk about the same events with phrasal verbs such as pick up, get down, put on, and take off.

(Michael Tomasello, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, 2003)

Problems and Qualifications

  • "The problem of the holophrase [is] that we have no clear evidence that the child intends more than he can express at the one-word stage." (J. De Villiers and P. De Villiers, Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, 1979)
  • "The single word in conjunction with the gestures and facial expressions is the equivalent of the whole sentence. By this account, the single word is not a holophrase, but one element in a complex of communications that includes nonverbal actions." (M. Cole et al., The Development of Children. Macmillan, 2004)

Holophrases in Adult Language

"Holophrases are of course a significant factor in modern adult language, for example, in idioms. But by and large, these have historical compositional origins (including 'by and large'). In any specific example, words came first, then the composition, then the holophrase . . .."

(Jerry R. Hobbs, "The Origin and Evolution of Language: A Plausible Strong-AI Account.")