A usage-based investigation of Afrikaans-speaking children’s holophrases and communicative intentions

Nina Brink


Children of all languages use their first lexical items to express a variety of meanings or communicative intentions. The phase during which young children start to use their first lexical items is commonly characterised from a usage-based approach as a holophrastic stage because these lexical items, although just a single linguistic unit, are often used to fulfil more complex communicative intentions. The meaning of the lexical item is therefore mostly derived from the communicative context in which the utterance takes place. A holophrase is defined as one linguistic symbol that functions as a whole utterance and expresses more than the conventional meaning of that symbol. Studies on the communicative functions of children’s holophrases do exist, but this phenomenon has not yet been studied in Afrikaans first language acquisition. Tomasello (2003: 37) provides a list of what young children from around the world normally do with their language (i.e. intentions typically expressed), and this study investigates to what extent these communicative intentions can also be applied to novel usage-based data of 20 Afrikaans-speaking children’s first lexical items. This study reveals that the communicative intentions as expressed by Tomasello also describe the Afrikaans data set although some of the descriptions of the categories are expanded to include a larger variety of samples from the Afrikaans data. Furthermore, two other types of communicative intentions are identified in the Afrikaans data, namely to express an emotion/feeling, and to respond to a conversation partner by means of imitation. Other studies done on children’s expression of emotions and imitations of words provide further evidence that children also use their language to communicate these intentions. As such, this article contributes to the body of literature on Afrikaans first language acquisition as an under-researched field.


Afrikaans first language acquisition; communicative intention; holophrase; usage-based approach

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5842/59-0-860


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ISSN 2224-3380 (online); 1726-541X (print)

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