A big bad “ablautive” exception to the grammar rule that went viral

By Felix Summerly, via Wikimedia Commons

By Felix Summerly, via Wikimedia Commons

As we discovered to our delight last week, we all use a grammar rule — a fairly complicated one involving the ordering of adjectives by property — without even realizing it. If you were hiding under a rock and missed the memo, you can see it explained in Matthew Anderson’s tweet, the viral post that was responsible for lighting up our inner grammatical souls. But what might delight you even more is to learn that there is in fact a big bad exception to this awesome astronomical rule, and you know that rule too …

Linguist Mark Forsyth tasted 21st-century fame last week when a paragraph from his recently published book went viral — and all because it revealed to English-speakers around the world that we are all language sophisticates without realizing it. To our great excitement, we learned that we obey a complicated rule involving the ordering of adjectives without even knowing there is a rule, let alone how we so rigorously and religiously apply it. In the wake of the great viral grammatical revelation (and note: it wasn’t a grammatical great viral unveiling), Forsyth subsequently talked to the BBC and told them about a couple more rules we all use unknowingly — one of which defies and overrides the adjective rule we all now know and love. Not only do we generally stick to that weird rule in our blindly obedient sentences, Forsyth explained, but we have no hesitation in breaking it when another rule — this time regarding vowel sounds — comes into play with its powerful and overriding directive. Ablaut reduplication is what it’s called, and here is how Forsyth described it to the BBC:

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

So next time you’re talking about the shitty shabby shoddy state of English language usage, you’ll know that you’re obeying the big bad rule of ablaut reduplication. Who knew?

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7 thoughts on “A big bad “ablautive” exception to the grammar rule that went viral

  1. Don Norman

    I think “big bad wolf” might not be an exception to the adjective order rule via the ablaut reduplication rule. It may be an exception for its own reason. Think of the following sentence… “He smiled a big, evil grin.” This clearly isn’t an ablaut reduplication, but it also breaks the adjective order rule. Also phrases like “big beautiful women,” or “big ugly monster,” come to mind. It seems the word “big” is the common denominator, not reduplication.

  2. Victor

    I think it has less to do with vowels and more to do with timing. We tend to form breaks during relatively longer pauses. This translates to the vowels mentioned because those vowels are in order of length. Consider Morse Code, which, using momentary pulses, is more about pauses between pulses than the length of the pulses. We “say” the code with dits and dahs because of the length of the vowels. For horses’ hooves, we say clip clop because a horse’s gait is not even. Front an back hooves alternate, but not with even timing. The clip goes with the short timing, and the clop with the longer timing. End of word with the longer pause, hence clip-clop rather than clop-clip.

    1. Melanie

      If it’s about timing, what’s the difference between the tic-toc of a clock? The second it takes for the tic to tick, is the same length it takes for the toc to tick 😉

      1. Mister Spike

        In a digital age, we are used to clocks with a single “tick” audible click for every second. This wasn’t always the case. Clocks with very regular rhythms were described as “ticking”, but there were some I’ve encountered where the “tick” and “tock” sounds were quite distinct and with a “dot dash” rhythm.

  3. Apurva Banthia

    Not sure if my query is valid, but is “Ka-Ching” an exception to the ablautive reduplication rule?

    1. Daniel de Iongh

      Nice spot, Apurva!
      I think the Ka-ching example might be more one of using the comic-prefix “Ka-“, which is very familiar in the world of cartoons in words such as Ka-pow!, Ka-blooey!! and Ka-zing!!! Ablaut reduplication is more a case of creating a small pseudo-poem that plays with a tweaked, imperfect repetition like “bits and bobs”, “dribs and drabs”, “tic-tac-toe”, “tittle-tattle”. (Ablaut means “diminished sound” in German.)

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