Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Fiddle-Faddle! The Delight of Reduplication

Years ago, when the furniture in the Language Lounge was still spick-and-span, I wrote a column about reduplication. Not a day has passed since then that I did not use, hear, and delight in one or more reduplicative words; they constitute a reliable source of infotainment in English, and no speaker's lexicon can or should be without a ready supply.

By way of review: reduplications come in three basic flavors in English, namely:

  1. reduplications narrowly defined, that is, where an identical syllable or pair of syllables is repeated to form a word. This can be called the yo-yo type.
  2. rhyming reduplications, in which parts one and two of a word differ only by having a different initial consonant sound (that is to say, in which rhyming words or syllables fuse to form a single term). This can be called the claptrap type.
  3. vowel-shift reduplications (my personal favorite), in which identical consonant sounds or clusters festoon two different vowels in successive parts of a word. This is the flimflam type.

Type 3 is perhaps the most open-ended category since there seems to be no requirement that either component of the word have standalone status as a word, and in cases where one component is a credentialed lexeme, speakers have license to make the other component fanciful; as seems to be the case fiddle-faddle, criss-cross, and perhaps tittle-tattle.

What I've been thinking about lately, and that I hope readers can share their insights and knowledge about, is this: just how much license actually exists in category 3? Of the many reduplications of this type, a striking number show a tell-tale pattern: the vowel in the first component is "short i," or what phonologists and IPA-aficionados call /ɪ/. The contenders I noted in the old Lounge piece fitting this category include willy-nilly, dilly-dally, flim-flam, whim-wham, flip-flap, clitter-clatter, tittle-tattle, criss-cross, mishmash, pitter-patter, and  riffraff. The last four in this list are all from the 15th century, and among the earliest noted reduplications in English.

And these, of course, are the tip-top of the iceberg. There's also clip-clop, jingle-jangle, King Kong, singsong, ding-dong, Ping-Pong, jimjams. Splish splash, I was takin' a bath. The strong preference for this pattern in reduplication looks to be such that, if no lexeme exists containing the preferred starter vowel /ɪ/, speakers will make the first component of the reduplication, rather than the second one, the fanciful part. This seems to be the case in clitter-clatter, criss-cross, mishmash, pitter-patter, and splish splash.

This starts to look not like license but rule implementation. So the question is, why do so many vowel-shift reduplications exist in which the first vowel is /ɪ/? I'm not the first person to have noted the pattern. Indeed, personages far more lofty than I have noted it, and those personages, bearing advanced degrees, have advanced theories about the phenom. To understand the theories, a short primer on vowel formation is in order.

Phonologists slice and dice the qualities of vowels in a number of arcane ways but for our nutshell purposes here, the important distinctions are: long and short (a distinction familiar to most speakers), high and low (a distinction based on the position of the tongue in relation to the roof of the mouth when the vowel is articulated) and front and back (a distinction based on the position of the tongue relative to the front of the oral cavity when the vowel is articulated).

One theory about the prevalence of  /ɪ/-/*/ reduplications comes from Steven Pinker, in his well-known book The Language Instinct (1994). He claims that:

Words that connote me-here-now tend to have higher and fronter vowels than verbs [sic] that connote distance from 'me' . . . Words that connote me-here-now tend to come before words that connote literal or metaphorical distance form 'me' . . .The syllogism seems to be: 'me' = high front vowel; me first; therefore high front vowel first.

Another theory is put forth by Israeli linguist Reuven Tsur in his 1992 book, What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive? Tsur's idea is based on his perception that back vowels are more cognitively demanding than front vowels (because they are more difficult to distinguish phonetically), and his hypothesis that "our cognitive economy tends to relegate to the end of the phrase (or clause) anything that requires relatively great processing effort." Because of this, he advances the explanation that it is a natural tendency to prefer high and front vowels at the beginning of reduplications, while pushing low back vowels to the end.

Pinker's theory, which we might think of as representing the "me first" school, cannot be expected to explain the phenomenon in languages other than English, unless it is a language in which the first personal pronoun contains a high front vowel. Tsur's theory, from the cognitive load-shifting school, ought to apply universally if it is valid.

Both of these theories are respectfully examined and then sent packing in an interesting paper by Maria Beldon, "Order Preference for Reduplicated Words with Differing Vowels." Ms. Beldon designed an experiment to test whether native speakers showed a preference for vowel ordering in the way that Pinker's and Tsur's theories would predict. Her data does not support the thrust of either thinker's theory, though her results "suggest that English speakers prefer the vowel [ɪ] before the vowels [ɛ], [æ], and [ɑ] in reduplicated words," without an explanation or hypothesis about why this might be.

The question that remains then is this: why does English exhibit such a rich collection of similarly-patterned reduplications, in the absence of a viable theory that explains them? There is no evidence to suggest that speakers are constrained to propagate reduplications that instantiate only a preferred vowel ordering, but there is also a dearth of viable reduplications that show a contrary pattern. We spoke with the Lounge's consultant phonetician Will Styler, who had some interesting observations about the phenomenon, including a supposition that the existing store of similar reduplications is effectively a pattern that speakers use, no doubt unconsciously, to create new reduplications:

This is prime territory for a construction of sorts to emerge by analogy, even without a rule. I, as a native speaker, have the word "ring" and want to make a homey expression, say, for the din of hundreds of phones ringing, say, in a news office. Clearly, then, it's "ring-rang", following the same pattern as all the others.

Is he constrained by a rule in his coinage? He says, "we should never attribute to constraint what is more easily attributed to laziness."

So I ask you, native English speakers: do you prefer [ɪ]-first reduplications, and if so, why? You can say that "they just sound right," but you will not be contributing to the advancement of science if that's all you have — everyone concurs on this. Is it possible that this preference arises because so many irregular verb paradigms show this same kind of change in the infinitive > past tense form (such as ring-rang)? For speakers of other languages: do vowel-shift reduplications in your language show this, or any such discernable pattern?


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 1st, 1:31 AM
Comment by: John M.
Glad you noted that Pinker's rule does not work in languages other than English. E.g, Japanese watashi (I), anata (you), kare (he), kanajo (she), all with the same first vowel. Also Chinese wo (I), ni (you), ta (he or she).
Wednesday January 1st, 3:29 AM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
In English, many strong verb conjugations follow a similar pattern:
ring, rang, rung
begin, began, begun.

Are these following a similar rule?
Wednesday January 1st, 7:30 AM
Comment by: Leslie W.
For this native English speaker, it seems possible that the [ɪ] sound is preferred -- comes first -- because it takes less effort. Not a conscious decision on our part, but one perhaps rooted in infancy, learning to speak, and our initial acquisition of language.
Wednesday January 1st, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Leslie W.
The character in line 1 of my comment above came off oddly. Please read it as "short "i".
Wednesday January 1st, 8:43 AM
Comment by: martha G. (Bronx, NY)
I notice that in all the examples I can think of the change from the first word to the second in each reduplication involves my jaw dropping, feeling like I am slightly opening my moth from the first to the second. Perhaps that's the underlying appeal of the combinations: It connotes expression, since we open our mouths to speak. Possibly, too, we like the way we settle into the expression as our jaw drops. In doing so, perhaps we also amplify the word as the mouth cavity opens more when the jaw drops, giving more impact to the though the reduplication expresses.
Wednesday January 1st, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Ken H.
I am very entertained by your article on reduplicative words. I propose for your consideration the following not as a theory or even a full explanation, but rather as further food for thought and perhaps a direction for further research.
Several years ago I studied the Thai Language. Thai is based on Sanskrit which is a very old language and perhaps serves as basis, at a very fundamental level, for many modern languages. The influences of Sanskrit on modern language may be so obscure as to be indistinguishable except in cases of very specific thinking.
Thai consists of 44 consonants and 13 vowels if I remember correctly. There are a few of those consonants which are considered “high class” consonants. The Thai Language is also a tonal language with five tones, high, medium, low, falling and rising. The only way to make some consonant/vowel construction produce a rising tone is to use a high class consonant at the beginning of the word. (Think of the Thai word transliterated to English “Hmong” for the cultural group from Thailand). The only reason for the silent “H” in the word is to give the word a rising tone.
As I read your article and subsequently pronounced the examples you gave, I noted they are, for the most part, falling tone word constructions. So, this realization makes me wonder if the “i- first reduplications are somehow influenced at a very fundamental and archaic way to produce a tonal quality in English (which, for the most part, does not exist). And, this tonal quality provides a “sing-song” affect to these English word constructions which makes the reduplications all the more enjoyable as a part of the language.
I have no idea of this observation would apply to other languages. I have also studied Russian and Japanese, but my skills are inadequate to make any comment.
Wednesday January 1st, 1:27 PM
Comment by: Peter L. (Columbia City, OR)
I think there's more to "they just sound right" than admitted. That made me pop my top, and risking a fall in to category two completely, propose a link between poetry and the formation of reduplications. Not knowing what the symbols cited (clearly not a reduplication) by Beldon mean, I tip my hat to professional and amateur alliterators alike. Some words are just cool to say together, and in the manner of verbal contradiction propose a flip-flop is more fun to say than bi-stable multi-vibrator.

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