Jibber Jabber: The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule


English is rich with fun, eccentric conventions that go unnoticed.

Like The Unwritten Adjective Rule, The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule is a maxim that we all seem to follow instinctively. You’ve definitely used it, but you’ve almost certainly never noticed.

Ablaut Reduplication

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

  • Bric-a-brac
  • Chitchat
  • Crisscross
  • Dillydally
  • Ding-dong
  • Fiddle-faddle
  • Flimflam
  • Jibber jabber
  • Kitty cat
  • Knickknack
  • Mishmash
  • Ping-pong
  • Pitter-patter
  • Riffraff
  • Shilly-shally
  • Singsong
  • Splish-splash
  • Ticktock
  • Tip-top
  • Tittle-tattle
  • Wishy-washy
  • Zigzag

The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule

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? If you think of any counter examples, let us know!

Five Other Types of Reduplication

1. Rhyming Reduplication

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

2. 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

3. 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

4. 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].

5. 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 Does It Matter?

First, new words are being created all the time. Wordplayers who want to add fresh ideas to our collective lexicon should pay attention. If you want your pioneering ablaut reduplication to catch on fist-fast, then follow the rule.

Second, Word People understand that language should be celebrated! It’s our heritage, and it’s fun!

The Unwritten Adjective Rule

It turns out that there is another unwritten rule in English grammar—one that most people have never noticed before. Adjective categories always come in a particular order. Any attempt to change this order sounds BAD.

Don’t believe us? We’ll prove it.

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