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The Meaning of First Words

During the so-called One Word Stage (12-24 months) (see Language Development) children typically produce single words that appear to bear the weight of a complete phrase. For example, if a father tried to hand a biscuit to his child and the child said ‘no’ then he might infer that his child is producing a negative statement – perhaps something along the lines of ‘I don’t want a biscuit.’ Or suppose that, as the father gives his child a biscuit, this time the child says ‘bibi’ (the child’s attempt to articulate the word biscuit). Now, the father may infer that his child is producing some type of comment – conceivably similar to ‘good, I wanted a biscuit’.

We have noted elsewhere (see Holophrase) that single words used by preschoolers to express the meaning of a whole phrase are sometimes called holophrases. Each holophrase appears to express meaning through a particular semantic function.

In the Holophrase article we discussed just three functions:

  • instrumental
  • regulatory
  • imaginative

These functions are taken from an influential publication by Halliday (1975). Halliday actually proposed seven functions and these are summarized in Table 1 by way of completing the proposed set.



I want/I need


I want (some) more
Regulatory Do as I tell you bike Let’s play on the bike
Imaginative Let’s pretend woof! Let’s pretend to be dogs
Informative I have something to tell you cat There’s a cat in the garden
Personal I like/I wonder that That’s nice
Heuristic Tell me why uh? What’s that?
Interactional (You and me) Bob Hello Bob

Table 1. Halliday’s (1975) seven semantic functions

Of course, it is possible to extend this list of functions. For example, one might choose to include a ‘negation function’ – alluded to earlier as a possible classification of the semantic function of the word ‘no’ when the child intended to convey the meaning ‘I don’t want a biscuit’. Or perhaps this can be readily included as an example of Halliday’s ‘instrumental function’? And what about a ‘repeating function’, such as when the child simply repeats what an adult or older child has said? Perhaps the child does this to gain extra processing time in order to fully comprehend what has been said? Or perhaps the child does this as an indication the he or she has heard what has been said and is acknowledging it. Whatever the child’s exact interactional intent, this sort of repetition does not appear to fit unequivocally into any of Halliday’s original seven functions.

Glossing holophrases


Attempts to describe how children use first words through constructing lists of characteristics (in this case so called semantic functions) present a number of difficulties.

First, how many characteristics are minimally sufficient to describe this particular use of language? Seven? Nine? More? It is not apparent how one might specify a principle to govern an upper limit that ensures all possible instances are included. [This is the same argument against listing the essential characteristics or key properties of language.]

Second, constructing lists of the semantic functions of first words relies on adults inferring meaning from just single words. Generally, adults are motivated to understand children’s communication attempts and also to help children understand them. We (subconsciously) ask, ‘What is the child trying to accomplish through using this particular word?’ As a result, we make plausible interpretations of any single words that a child uses, informed by our understanding of the particular social and physical contexts in which they are uttered. Providing any such plausible interpretation/inference is known as providing a gloss. A gloss is unlikely, therefore, to provide a completely accurate account of a child’s meaning. However, classifying first words by plausible semantic functions does go some way to revealing how children may regulate the behavior of those around them through the use of language.


Halliday, M.A.K. (1975) Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language London: Edward Arnold.