What the frick-frack is going on?

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Our relationship to language is … complicated.

As wielders of the written and spoken word, we construe language as no more than a tool to convey meaning. Yet language still manages to surprise us with its inbuilt laws and quirks, obvious or not, that continue to confound and delight us.

One such law that has resurfaced in mainstream culture in recent years is one that we obey to a fault, but which (most likely) has never been taught in school. I’m referring to reduplication, which, in the simplest terms, is the vocabulary variations of repetitions, of which there are currently three main types (commonly agreed upon by linguists, that is).

The first type, exact reduplication, works as it sounds: words are repeated with no variation. This usually stems from the efforts of adults teaching infants how to speak, such as “bye-bye,” “choo-choo” or even “da-da. In adult vernacular, this could be a form of mockery (e.g., “blah-blah”) or emphasis (e.g., “do you like him or do you like like him?”).

The second type, rhyming reduplication, deals with slight variations that still maintain the rhyme and achieves a sense of playfulness or catchiness. While this could be done simply with two established words that happened to rhyme (e.g., “chick flick”), it is also common to see a manifestation of rhyming duplication with nonsense words (e.g., the ol’ “razzle-dazzle”). The end goal for all of the above is undeniably the same: to dress up language in the most memorable way.

The third and final type of reduplication, instead of describing techniques or phenomena, actually stands on its own as a veritable law of linguistics that we all necessarily follow, whether or not we are in fact aware of it! Ablaut reduplication asserts that, in any situation where reduplication occurs and the altered element is the vowel and not the consonant, “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,” as explained by Mark Forsyth of the BBC.

For a quick exercise, flip the orders of the following phrases and spend some time thinking of instances in which this rule is broken (but not too long, as for most this is an ultimately fruitless endeavor): mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip-top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic-tac, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, ping-pong.

Ultimately, while laws such as ablaut reduplication seem to impose constraints on the freedoms we like to believe we hold in the wielding of language, it is perhaps better to simply appreciate the idiosyncrasies of English as it exists. No one knows for sure when exactly the rule entered our discourse, much less why. But it does suggest that languages, instead of being gargantuan projects with the singular purpose of conveying ideas and meaning faithfully, are better construed as collections of complex and oftentimes arbitrary rules, in which sometimes the only necessary criteria is if it sounds and feels “right.”

At least in this case, when the grammar police come knocking, it might be better to simply trust your intuition.