Ablaut reduplication and tikTok

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. Like order of adjectives, that mysterious rule of syntax all native speakers know but don’t think about, the vowel changes in ablaut reduplication follow a rule that we “just know.” This rule is why clocks go ticktock instead of tocktick and doorbells go ding-dong instead of dong-ding.

Why should editors care about this? It’s always good to know what things are called when you need to look them up. But also, the rule is important if you’re involved with naming a product or a character: if it follows the rule, it “works”; if it doesn’t, it sounds strange or “off”—which may be exactly what your client is going for.

 Ablaut reduplication pairs words with internal vowel alternations. See if you can spot the unwritten rule in the following list of ablaut reduplication examples:

1. I to A or O

Ablaut reduplication 

The vowel sounds in these words move from the front to the back of your mouth: say “bit bet bat bought but” out loud and pay attention to where in your mouth you’re making the vowel sound to find out how this works. For English ablaut reduplication, the order is generally short I to A or O, but even phrases like hee-haw (which doesn’t have an IA, or O sound) follow the front-to-back pattern.

Ablaut Reduplication

Ablaut reduplication is much more common in English than in most other languages. It’s also productive, meaning that new phrases following this rule are still appearing. Many of these are product names, such as KitKat or TikTok.

Ablaut in general is any pattern of vowel shifts, whether it’s pronunciation change over time, like the Great Vowel Shift in Middle English, or a change in grammatical function like verb tense (stink/stank/stunk) or noun number (goose/geese). Ablaut occurs in varying patterns throughout languages around the world and over time.

2. Rhyming Reduplication

Reduplication is the repeating of all or part of a word for rhetorical effect. It sounds redundant—shouldn’t it just be duplication?—but that’s what linguists call it. Types of reduplication include:

  • Simple reduplication, which emphasizes the repeated word, as when you tell a child, “That’s a no-no.”
  • Rhyming reduplication, which changes the initial consonant sound instead of the vowel, as in heebie-jeebies. A variety of this is Yiddish schm-reduplication, which replaces the first sound of the word with schm to demonstrate a blasé or sarcastic reaction, as in rulesschmules or fancy-schmancy.
  • Contrastive focus reduplication, which repeats the word with stress to distinguish its literal meaning from its intended sense, as in “Cassandra is rich, but she’s not RICH-rich.”

Rhyming reduplication refers to simple word pairs that rhyme:

  • Boogie-woogie
  • Easy-peasy
  • Hoity-toity
  • Hokey-pokey
  • Ragtag
  • Razzle-dazzle
  • Super-duper
  • Teenie-weenie
  • Walkie-talkie

3. Exact Reduplication

Exact reduplication employs repeated words evocative of baby talk, which soften the tone of the subject:

  • Bye-bye
  • Choo-choo
  • Night-night
  • No-no

4. Shm- Reduplication

Shm- reduplication is a feature of American English with Yiddish roots. It expresses indifference by pairing a word with a made-up reformation of the first word where the initial consonant is replaced by shm.

  • Baby-shmaby
  • Cancer-shmancer
  • Fancy-shmancy

5. Comparative Reduplication

Comparative reduplication repeats an adjective to indicate an object’s change over time:

  • My spaceship went higher and higher.
  • Her skin got paler and paler.

Comparative reduplication can avoid unintentional comparisons to another object, for instance:

  • My spaceship went higher [than his spaceship].
  • Her skin got paler [than his skin].

6. Contrastive Focus Reduplication

Contrastive focus reduplication uses stressed repetition to highlight the distinction between a noun’s essence and its literal state:

  • I’m awake, but I’m not AWAKE-awake.
  • Is it just hot, or is it HOT-hot?
  • Are you saying that as television Tim, or TIM-tim?

Why Ablaut Reduplication is Tip-Top was originally published in Tracking Changes (Summer 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

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