Journal of Child Language


Holophrases, speech acts and language universals*

John Dorea1

a1 Bernard M. Baruch College, City University of New York and The Rockefeller University


The arguments both for and against viewing the child's initial one-word utterances as HOLOPHRASES are reviewed. Some theoretical problems – concerning the innateness of language, the acquisition of syntax, the status of prosody and the child's comprehension of language during the one-word stage – with the holophrase controversy are pointed out. We suggest that an unresolvable theoretical stalemate exists because proponents on both sides of the controversy mistakenly assume the centrality of the notion sentence in discussing holophrases. An alternative view of early language development, which takes the SPEECH ACT as the basic unit of linguistic communication, is offered as a solution to the problems with the holophrase controversy as it now stands. We propose a more integrated description of the relations between functional and grammatical aspects of early communicative competence than is currently provided by sentence-oriented theories. In particular, we suggest that the child's PRAGMATIC INTENTIONS gradually become GRAMMATICALIZED as semantic and syntactic structures. Finally, three entities – communicative functions, referring expressions and predicating expressions – are proposed as LANGUAGE UNIVERSALS, as distinct from grammatical universals.

(Received March 10 1974)


[*] This work was supported in part by Grant no. 10152 from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York. I would like to thank George A. Miller, David McNeill, Margery B. Franklin and D. Terence Langendoen for helpful comments on a draft of this paper. An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Psycho-linguistic Circle of New York on 13 November 1973.