The rule of ablautreduplication – News


Have you ever wondered why, in English, we say that a clock goes “tick-tock”, not “tock-tick”, or if it’s a grandfather clock, why it strikes the hours with a ” ding-dong”, not a “dong-ding”?



By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 14 Jul 2022, 07:09 PM

“Without our language, we got lost,” wrote Melina Marchetta. “Who are we without our words? Indeed, our words are fundamental to who we are, and the way we use our words includes things we think about before we say, and things that come to native speakers of a language instinctively, without thinking. One of them is the rule of ablotherduplication.

The rule of what? I hear you say. Never heard of it! Ablotherduplication? What are you talking about? Is it even English? Bear with me, and I’ll explain.

Have you ever wondered why, in English, we say that a clock goes “tick-tock”, not “tock-tick”, or if it’s a grandfather clock, why it strikes the hours with a ” ding-dong”, not a “dong-ding”? Why does a weak leader have a habit of making weak statements that are considered “tasteless” rather than “tasteless”, or the pattern on his tie described as “crisscross” rather than “crisscross”? Why does the giant monkey from the horror movie King Kong ring true when “Kong King” doesn’t work?

There’s a good reason for all this — and it’s the rule of ablotherduplication. It is one of the unwritten rules of the English language that native speakers of English instinctively know without having to learn it formally. Ablaut reduplication (usually merged into a single word) is the pattern by which vowels change in a compound phrase of two repeated words to form a new word or phrase with a specific meaning, such as tick-tock, ding-dong, wishy-washy or criss-cross. The rule states that if there are more than two such words, the word order must match the vowels I, A, and O, in that order. If there are only two words, then the first is I and the second is A or O.

The reason for this (and even instinctive rules have reasons) is that the vowel sounds in these words travel from the front to the back of your mouth. This is why English has the expressions mish-mash (confused mess), chit-chat (idle conversation), dilly-dally (delay), tip-top (spiffy), hip-hop (music), flip-flop (reversal of positions), tic-tac (the game or the mint), sing-song (to describe a high-pitched voice), tic-tac, ding-dong, tasteless and criss-cross – and for that matter even proper nouns like Ping -pong (table tennis) or even King Kong. If you reverse the order of the words in any of these phrases, it just doesn’t sound right. For the English speaker, even if a horse’s four hooves make exactly the same sound on a cobbled street, horses always go “clip-clop”, never “clop-clip”. What about vowels other than A, I or O? Follow the rule from the front of your mouth to the back and you’ll understand why donkeys bawl “hee-haw” and not “haw-hee”.

English is full of such unwritten rules, just as England itself is home to an unwritten constitution. There is another similar rule in the name “Little Red Riding Hood” from the famous fairy tale: in any sentence or expression that uses multiple adjectives, a specific order must be followed. The order of adjectives in English must imperatively follow this sequence: Opinion – Size – Age – Shape – Color – Origin – Material – Purpose – Name. This is why the English always describe the fantastic Martians as “little green men”, and not as “little green men”. This means that you can have a “beautiful and huge vintage brown Indian teak picture frame”, but if you mix up that word order down to the smallest detail, you’ll look like you don’t know the language.

It seems pretty clear, especially if you can even remember the mnemonic for the rule, which is OSAShCOMPuN (If in doubt, bring up “OSAShCOMPuN”, and like “Open Sesame”, that will solve any confusion for you). But wait, you might say: it’s English — aren’t there exceptions? After all, the phrase “Big Bad Wolf”, from the same fairy tale as Little Red Riding Hood, violates this rule; Following OSAShCOMPuN’s strict “opinion – size – name” order, shouldn’t this be “Bad Big Wolf”? No, because in case of clash, the rule of ablautreduplication prevails. Do you remember the basic rule regarding the CAI command? This is ablotherduplication, and the rule of ablotherduplication is infallible—and inviolable.

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