Ablaut Reduplication: The English Language Rule You Didn’t Know You Knew

Want to hear about this great new dessert we’ve invented? It’s a chocolate snack cake covered in chocolate and filled with whipped cream. We call it a Dong Ding. The mascots for the product will be a medium-sized ape named Kong King and a little horse with a song-sing voice and whose hooves make a cloppity-clip sound as it zag-zigs down the road.

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? No, we’re not talking about the shameless rip-off of the Hostess Ding Dongs or King Kong. Beyond trademark infringement, there’s just something not quite right about the way some of those words sound. You probably can’t point to any specific grammar rule, but in your gut, you know there’s a problem with words like “song-sing,” “cloppity-clip,” “Kong King,” and “zag-zig.”

In truth, there is a rule that has been broken. It’s a rule you know and strictly follow, even though your grammar teachers never mentioned it. It is the rule of vowel order in ablaut reduplication.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word with altered consonants, such as lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, or nitty-gritty. Ablaut reduplication involves the changing of vowels: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong, or pish–posh.

The rule of vowel order is that if there are two words, the one with an I must come first. If there are three words, the order is I, A, and O. Take these examples, and you will find that changing the order in any way offends the ears:

  • mish-mash
  • chit-chat
  • dilly-dally
  • shilly-shally
  • tip-top
  • hip-hop
  • flip-flop
  • tic-tac
  • sing-song
  • ding-dong
  • King Kong
  • ping pong
  • Kit Kat
  • tick tock

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