Telegraphic Speech

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A simplified manner of speech in which only the most important content words are used to express ideas, while grammatical function words (such as determiners, conjunctions, and prepositions), as well as inflectional endings, are often omitted.

Telegraphic speech is a stage of language acquisition—typically in a child's second year.

The term telegraphic speech was coined by Roger Brown and Colin Fraser in "The Acquisition of Syntax" (Verbal Behavior and Learning: Problems and Processes, ed. by C. Cofer and B. Musgrave, 1963).

Also Known As: telegraphic talk, telegraphic style, telegrammatic speech


Named after the compressed sentences used in telegrams when the sender had to pay by the word.

Examples and Observations:​

  • "Sure enough, I hear a little voice from the other side of the room: 'No, mummy—no go sleep!'
    "I cringe. 'I'm right here, honey. I didn't go anywhere.' But my comforting words fall on deaf ears. Neil starts crying." (Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers. Random House, 2002)
  • "A preschooler who called 911 on Thursday to report 'mom and daddy go bye bye' helped authorities find three young children left unattended in a home with drug paraphernalia.
    "A 34-year-old woman, the mother of two of the children, was arrested when she showed up later after a gambling trip, Spokane police spokesman officer Bill Hager said." (Associated Press, "Three Preschool Children Found Home Alone in Spokane." The Seattle Times, May 10, 2007)
  • An Elliptical Method
    "One of the well-known characterizations of children's early multiword utterances is that they resemble telegrams: they omit all items which are not essential for conveying the gist of the message... Brown and Fraser, as well as Brown and Bellugi (1964), Ervin-Tripp (1966) and others pointed out that children's early multiword utterances tend to omit closed-class words such as articles, auxiliary verbs, copulas, prepositions, and conjunctions, compared to the sentences adults typically say in the same circumstances.
    "Children's sentences tend to include mostly open-class or substantive words such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. For example, Eve, one of the children observed by the Brown group, said Chair broken when an adult would have said The chair is broken, or That horsie when an adult would have said That is a horsie. Despite the omissions, the sentences do not fall very far from their presumable adult models, as the order of the content-words making them up usually replicates the order in which the same words would have appeared in the fully constructed adult sentence.
    "Given the selective omission of closed-class items, the first possibility to be checked was that maybe children only use open-class words in their early speech but not closed-class or 'function' words. Brown (1973) searched through available child corpora and found that this hypothesis was incorrect: he found many closed-class or function words in children's two-word and early multiword speech, among them more, no, off and the pronouns I, you, it and so forth. In fact, most of what Braine (1963) called pivot-open combinations were built on closed-class items as pivots.
    "It appears that children are perfectly able to produce word-combinations with closed-class items—but they will not include them in utterances if they are not essential for conveying the gist of the message. The words 'missing' from the utterances may have important grammatical functions in the relevant adult sentences, but the words 'retained' are the substantive words carrying the semantic content of their respective phrases.
    " ...'[T]elegraphic speech' represents an extremely elliptical method for satisfying the semantic and syntactic valency of the predicates around which the sentence is built—but satisfying them nevertheless. The word-combinations correctly 'project' the lexical valency of the predicate words involved, satisfying both semantic and syntactic requirements. For example, the shortened sentence Adam make tower... satisfies the verb make's semantic requirement for two logical arguments, one for the maker and one for the thing made; the child-speaker even has the correct idea where to place them relative to the verb, meaning that he already has a workable syntactic valency-frame established for this verb, including the SVO word order for the subject, verb, and the direct-object elements. There is some other rule that this sentence is breaking to do with the obligatory determinants heading noun-phrases in English, but at the bottom line, that rule is irrelevant for satisfying the valency requirements of the verb make, and that's what 'telegraphic' sentences appear to take as a first priority. The 'retained' content words form obvious and recognizable Merge/Dependency couples, with predicates getting their arguments in the correct syntactic configuration (but see Lebeaux, 2000)."
    (Anat Ninio, Language, and the Learning Curve: A New Theory of Syntactic Development. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Reasons for Omissions in Telegraphic Speech
    "Exactly why these grammatical factors (i.e., function words) and inflections are omitted [in telegraphic speech] is a matter of some debate. One possibility is that the omitted words and morphemes are not produced because they are not essential to meaning. Children probably have cognitive limitations on the length of utterances they can produce, independent of their grammatical knowledge. Given such length limitations, they may sensibly leave out the least important parts. It is also true that the omitted words tend to be words that are not stressed in adults' utterances, and children may be leaving out unstressed elements (Demuth, 1994). Some have also suggested that children's underlying knowledge at this point does not include the grammatical categories that govern the use of the omitted forms (Atkinson, 1992; Radford, 1990, 1995), although other evidence suggests it does (Gerken, Landau, & Remez, 1990)."
    (Erika Hoff, Language Development, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2005)
  • A Subgrammar
    "Given the fact that adults can speak telegraphically, there is a strong implication, though of course no sure proof, that telegraphic speech is an actual subgrammar of the full grammar, and that adults using such speech are gaining access to that subgrammar. This, in turn, would be very much in line with the General Congruence Principle, which suggests that the acquisitional stage exists in the adult grammar in something like the same sense that a particular geological layer may lie underneath a landscape: it, therefore, may be accessed."
    (David Lebeaux, Language Acquisition and the Form of the Grammar. John Benjamins, 2000)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Telegraphic Speech." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Telegraphic Speech. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Telegraphic Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).