Telegraphic speech is the term for a simplified form of speech used during the early stages of language acquisition. In this form of language, sentences are formed of simple word combinations, usually basic nouns and verbs. The finer points of grammar, including articles and modifiers, are absent at this point and are usually learned later. Telegraphic speech is an important stage in language development, and most infants practice it at some point, regardless of what language they are learning. It is also used by adults who are recovering from a brain injury or illness, such as a stroke.
The term “telegraphic speech” was coined by the American psychologist Roger Brown, the author of many influential language studies in the 1960s and 1970s. It refers to the telegraph, a telecommunications device used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Telegraph services charged by the word, so users famously employed only those words necessary to convey the essential meaning of a message. This also inspired the writing method known as “telegraphic style.” Telegraphic style is still used in modern times for newspaper headlines, TV listings, and other communications where content is more important than grammar.
In infancy, most people develop language skills by listening to and imitating the speech of adults and older children. Babies progress from babbling to speaking their first words by the time they are around 18 months old. From 18 to 24 months, they will generally move on to telegraphic speech, often two-word sentences that consist of a subject and a verb. An example in English would be “want cake,” meaning, “I would like some cake.” This process is universal; babies around the world learn their languages this way, except for those with developmental disabilities or other barriers to language acquisition.
After about 24 months, most babies will progress to more complex grammatical constructions. These include articles like “the” and “a,” modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs, and past and future tense. There are indications that people who do not pass through these language development stages in early childhood may have difficulty acquiring language later in life. The specific brain functions involved in the acquisition and use of language are the subjects of ongoing study.
Adults who have suffered damage to the brain as the result of a head injury or a stroke, for example, may have to relearn their language skills. These individuals will pass through the telegraphic speech stage again before progressing to more complex sentences. Unexplained use of telegraphic speech can also be an indicator of a brain or nerve disorder, such as multiple sclerosis. Some voice-activated computer programs are not sophisticated enough to recognize complex sentences. Users of these programs must sometimes phrase their commands in telegraphic speech for best results.