All about ablaut reduplication
Language is full of rules, no matter which one you speak. The funny thing is that we often know and follow the rules of our mother tongue without ever recognizing that there’s even a rule involved. If someone asked you to share your feelings about ablaut reduplication, what would you do? If you’re like most of us, you’d squirm for a second before admitting you haven’t the first clue what the dang thing is. And yet, you almost certainly adhere rigidly to the rule associated with ablaut reduplication.
Let’s break it down. Reduplication in linguistics refers to the way we repeat sounds in some words: putt-putt, sing-sing, no-no, bye-bye, boo-boo, choo-choo, po-po, yo-yo, etc. Those words are all examples of exact reduplication.
Another group of reduplicated words and terms repeat the sound, but not exactly the same way: ping-pong, chit-chat, wishy-washy, singsong, zigzag, flimflam, King Kong, dillydally, tip-top, riprap, ding-dong, tic-tac, tick-tock, hiphop, rickrack, crisscross, knickknack, flip-flop, riffraff, click-clack, pitter patter…the list goes on.
These words come from all kinds of different times and places, and their meanings vary wildly. Each one, however, is an example of ablaut reduplication, wherein the vowel changes to a different vowel in the repeated syllable.
Notice anything else these words have in common? Look closely and you’ll pick up on a consistent pattern for the vowels. The ‘i’ comes first, every single time. The ‘o’ or ‘a’ sound always appear in the final iteration.
What about words that don’t have an ‘i’ in them, like teetertotter and seesaw? The ‘o’ and ‘a’ half comes last there too, and here’s why. In linguistic terms, the short ‘i’ and the ‘ee’ sound that represents one form of the long ‘i’ are both considered high vowels, because when we make these sounds we’re positioning the tongue high in the mouth. We make the short ‘a’ and short ‘o’ sound with the tongue held lower. (I see you making goofy faces as you experiment with the sounds!)
Ablaut reduplication sounds terribly intimidating, but once you recognize the reasoning it’s quite a simple rule: high vowels before low vowels. Cool, huh? And you knew it all along, at some level.
The ablaut reduplication rule is far from the only instance of unrecognized but always-followed linguistic laws. For example, no right-thinking English speaker would refer to an old little lady. That would be silly and wrong, obviously. Even a child knows she’s properly described as a little old lady. And why? Because there’s a rule governing the order of adjectives, and we follow this rule despite not being consciously aware of it.
Language, with all its hidden but powerful rules, is a complex and wonderful thing. Marvel at its sophisticated intricacies, and then remember you’ve got a job to do – one that’s made so much easier by our shared understanding of these many rules.