VanHaren: Pish posh! Why did I not know this?

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Roger VanHaren

When this column hits the paper, it will be one day before my 80th birthday. My mom used to say I started talking when I was nine months old, and I have not shut up since. So for over 79 years I’ve been using the English language, and I taught English for 37 years. And yet, before a few days ago, when my friend David texted me a clipping from a BBC magazine (Where did he find it, and why? He was a math teacher!), I had never heard of ablaut reduplication.

Have you ever wondered why we say tick-tock, not tock-tick, or ding-dong, not dong-ding; King Kong, not Kong King? Tock-tick and dong-ding just don’t sound right, do they? I could give you lots of other examples, too. How about dally-dilly, shally-shilly, top tip, hop hip, flop-flip, song-sing, chat-chit, pong ping. They just sound wrong, don’t they?

Turns out there’s an unwritten rule that native speakers of English know without their knowing that they know it. Aha! So that’s why I never heard of it before. It’s unwritten. Well, it was unwritten until somebody wrote it down for the BBC magazine, I guess.

Here’s what it says: “If there are three words, then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words, then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mishmash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.”

OK, so let’s examine this phenomenon. English is rich with fun, eccentric conventions that go unnoticed. Like the stuff I’ve just been writing about. Like the “unwritten” ablaut reduplication rule. It’s unwritten, but linguists have a name for it. I never heard of it before, but by gosh, it has a name.

So what is ablaut reduplication? Pay attention, there may be a quiz. (Over 37 years of teaching, how many times do you think I heard, “Mr. V, will there be a quiz?”) The ablaut reduplication rule is a rule that we seem to follow instinctively. We’ve all done it, but we almost certainly were never aware that we were doing it.

In linguistics, reduplication is the expressive repetition of a single word, or the pairing of a word with another of similar sound or spelling. English has at least six types of reduplication, but I’m dealing with only one here today. Maybe I’ll come back to the others in another column. (That’s not a threat, by the way.)

Ablaut reduplication pairs words with internal vowel alternations. I gave you a bunch of them earlier. See if you can figure out the unwritten rule in the following list of ablaut reduplication examples: Bric-a-brac, Fiddle-faddle, Flimflam, Knickknack (isn’t that a great word? All those k’s.), see-saw.

Did you see the pattern? In all these ablaut reduplication word pairs, the key vowels appear in a specific order: either i before a, or i before o. In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels. See-saw doesn’t use the letter i, but the high-vowel-before-low-vowel pattern still applies.

Cool, right? OK, no quiz for now, but aren’t you glad you know all this stuff? Thanks to my friend David, I learned that there was something I knew but I didn’t know I knew it. And now you know it, too! Cool!

Contact Roger VanHaren at