Holophrase in Language Acquisition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Dad holding his child
When a child says the holophrase dada, they may be asking where he is are or stating that they want him depending on the situation.

kate_sept2004 / Getty Images

A holophrase is a single-word phrase such as Okay that expresses 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. The adjective holophrastic is used to denote a phrase consisting of a single word.

Not all holophrastic utterances follow the one-word rule, however. Some holophrases, as noted by Bruce M. Rowe and Diane P. Levine in A Concise Introduction to Linguistics, 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," (Rowe and Levine 2014).

Many socio- and psycholinguists are interested in how holophrases originate in a person's lexicon. Often, this acquisition begins at a very young age; this field of study is generally concerned with infants and children. Find out how holophrases make their way into a speaker's language and what they tell upbringing, environment, and development.

Holophrases in Language Acquisition

Even from a very young age, language learners can communicate. What starts as cooing and babbling soon becomes holophrases that allow a baby to express their needs and desires to those around them. Researcher Marcel Danesi says more about the role of holophrases in language acquisition in Second Language Teaching. "[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 the 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," (Danesi 2003).

Evolution of Holophrases

Holophrases, like the children that learn to use them, grow and evolve to take on different meanings and suit different needs. Psychologist Michael Tomasello comments, "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," (Tomasello 2003).

Interpreting Holophrases

Unfortunately, interpreting a child's holophrases is far from easy. This is because a holophrase could mean something entirely different to its speaker than it does to a researcher or family member, as explained by Jill and Peter De Villiers: "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," (De Villiers and De Villiers 1979).

Further, a holophrase needs context outside of a single holophrastic word to make sense. The Development of Children outlines the importance of body language for the successful use and interpretation of holophrases. "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," (Lightfoot et al. 2008).

Composition of Adult Holophrases

Most adults use holophrastic language fairly regularly, especially single-word phrases that are well-established. But how are holophrases created by adult speakers, some of which remain in use for generations, created? Jerry Hobbs explains the composition of holophrases in "The Origin and Evolution of Language: A Plausible Strong-Al Account".

"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," (Hobbs 2005).


  • Danesi, Marcel. Second Language Teaching. Springer, 2003.
  • De Villiers, Jill, and Peter De Villiers. Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Hobbs, Jerry R. "The Origin and Evolution of Language: A Plausible Strong-AI Account." Action To Language via the Mirror Neuron System. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Lightfoot, Cynthia et al. The Development of Children. 6th ed. Worth Publishers, 2008.
  • Rowe, Bruce M., and Diane P. Levine. A Concise Introduction to Linguistics. 4th ed. Routledge, 2014.
  • Tomasello, Michael. Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, 2003.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Holophrase in Language Acquisition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/holophrase-language-acquisition-1690929. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 29). Holophrase in Language Acquisition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/holophrase-language-acquisition-1690929 Nordquist, Richard. "Holophrase in Language Acquisition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/holophrase-language-acquisition-1690929 (accessed June 4, 2023).