The Rule of Ablautreduplication

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 chimes the hours with a “ding-dong”, not a “dong-ding”?

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 14 Jul 2022, 7:09 PM

“Without our language, we have lost ourselves,” Melina Marchetta famously wrote. “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 saying, and things that come to native speakers of a language instinctively, without thinking. One of these is the rule of ablautreduplication.

The rule of what? I hear you saying. Never heard of it! Ablautreduplication? What are you talking about? Is it even English? Bear with me, and I will 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 chimes the hours with a “ding-dong”, not a “dong-ding”? Why is a weak leader given to making feeble statements considered “wishy-washy” rather than “washy-wishy”, or the pattern on his tie described as “criss-cross” rather than “cross-criss”? Why does the giant ape in the horror movie King Kong sound just right while “Kong King” somehow doesn’t work?

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

The reason for this (and even instinctive rules have reasons) is that the vowel sounds in these words move 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), tick-tock, ding-dong, wishy-washy and crisscross — 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 expressions, it just doesn’t sound right. To the English speaker, even though all four of a horse’s hooves make exactly the same sound on a cobble-stoned street, the horses always go “clip-clop”, never “clop-clip”. What about vowels other than A, I or O? Follow the front-of-your-mouth-to-the-back rule, and you understand why donkeys bray “hee-haw” and not “haw-hee”.

English is full of such unwritten rules, just as England itself is home to an unwritten constitution. There’s another similar rule in the name “Little Red Riding Hood” from the famous fairy tale: In any phrase or expression that uses multiple adjectives, a specific order must be followed. Adjectival order in English absolutely must follow this sequence: Opinion - Size - Age - Shape - Colour - Origin - Material - Purpose - Noun. That’s why the English always describe fantasy Martians as “little green men”, not “green little men”. This means that you can have a “lovely enormous old circular brown Indian teak picture frame”, but if you mix up that word order in the slightest particular, you’ll sound like you don’t know the language.

That seems clear enough, especially if you can even remember the mnemonic for the rule, which is OSAShCOMPuN (When in doubt, conjure up “OSAShCOMPuN”, and like “Open Sesame”, it will resolve any confusion for you). But hold on, you might say: this is English — aren’t there exceptions? After all, the expression “Big Bad Wolf”, from the same fairytale as Little Red Riding Hood, violates this rule; following the strict order of “opinion - size - noun” from OSAShCOMPuN, shouldn’t it be “Bad Big Wolf”? No, because when there’s a clash, the rule of ablautreduplication prevails. Remember the basic rule about the I-A-O order? That’s ablautreduplication, and the rule of ablautreduplication is infallible — and inviolable.

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