From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Holophrasis is the prelinguistic use of a single word to express a complex idea. A holophrase may resemble an interjection, but whereas an interjection is linguistic, and has a specific grammatical function, a holophrase is simply a vocalization memorized by rote and used without grammatical intent.


Toddlers pass through a holophrastic stage early in life, during which they are able to communicate complex ideas using only single words and simple fixed expressions. As an example, the word "food" might be used to mean "Give me food" and the word "up" could convey "Pick me up".

Combined with body language, context, and tone of voice, holophrasis is usually sufficient to express a child's needs. Indeed, it is based almost entirely on context.

One interesting feature of holophrasis is its economy, and its emphasis on certainty rather than conceptual completeness. When expressing a complex idea, a child will often omit the more familiar concepts and use only the most recently learned word. For instance, when requesting a ball, a child is far more likely to specify "ball" than "want".

Although holophrasis is non-grammatical, it forms the foundation of a child's vocabulary.


Another use of this term (along with the adjectival form holophrastic) is found in linguistics to refer to words that form whole sentences by themselves, especially in languages with polysynthesis. In this sense, holophrasatic words are not prelinguistic or non-grammatical, but are words with complex internal structure that can stand alone without any other words in a sentence.

Native American languages[edit]

In the early twentieth century, William James Sidis claimed that all native American languages hold a holophrastic structure. This was possibly in reference to the fact that some languages of the Americas are highly polysynthetic[1], which is distinct as a phenomenon from holophrasis. [2]


  1. ^ http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test1materials/typology.htm
  2. ^ (via: http://www.sidis.net/TSChap2.htm) The Tribes And The States: 100,000-Year History of North America