A friend recently posted this article to Facebook which points out something that we probably all knew but didn’t know we know.
But, if you’re a native English speaker, the following word pairs, which order is correct?
- Tick-tock or tock-tick
- Ding-dong or dong-ding
- Yin-yang or yang-yin
- Pong pong or pong ping
- Flim-flam or flam-flim
If you’re a native speaker, you’re going to pick the I-O combo every time: tick tock and so forth. Why? That’s just the way it is, but there is a name for the rule. It’s called ablaut reduplication. It’s a fascinating subject, but here’s the short version of what’s happening.
First, what’s an ablaut? Well, it’s a change of vowel in related forms — and as you can see, in all of the above pairs, the only change is the vowel and not the rest of the letters.
Ablauts are very common in strong verbs in English (and German) because these are the ones that derive their tenses by changing internal vowels instead of adding endings.
In other words, “to call,” a weak verb, is conjugated as I call (present), I called (preterite), and I had called (past perfect.) On the other, a strong verb like “to sing” conjugates like so: I sing (present), I sang (preterite) and I had sung (past perfect).
But notice anything else in that pattern? The ablaut actually follows the tense back in time. Now, the missing one is “song,” but that’s a noun. Still, where would you put it in the order if you were to speak all four words.
You just thought to yourself “sing, sang, song, sung,” didn’t you? Because that’s just the natural order for it.
The “reduplication” part just means to reuse the root or stem of a word in a different conjugation, tense, gender, or whatever, with or without variation. It’s very obvious in the conjugation of regular verbs in Spanish. For example, “llamar” (to call), is conjugated in the present tense as llamo, llamas, llama, llaman, llamos. The llam- stem doesn’t change. Only the endings do.
Okay, so those are the what’s of the thing. What about the why? Well, it’s simple. The vowels come in order of their placement as far as where they’re sounded in your mouth, from front to back.
In case you’re wondering about the pattern across all of the vowels, that order is I-E-A-O-U, assuming all of the vowels are short. The only place I can think of where this order doesn’t hold is in the English alphabet itself, but that’s because it’s not a word, and when we recite it, all of the vowel names are the long versions anyway.
Another thing the article reminded me of was an old improv exercise/theatre game called “Zip, Zap, Zop,” and it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Players form a circle, then the first person will say “Zip” and point at someone. They say “Zap” and point at anyone but the person who pointed at them, then the last person says “Zop,” points, etc.
So it creates a rapid-fire round of zip-zap-zops, and you can do it as an elimination game if you want. But there are a couple of variations to it, and thinking back on when I used to do these in the before times, the long ago, they really highlight how hardwired the I-A-O rule really is in our brains.
In the first version, the moderator/referee will declare something like “Silent Zap!” In this iteration, the first person says “Zip” and points, but the second person says nothing and points. Ideally, the third person will say “Zop” and point, but it’s surprising how quickly someone will screw up and say “Zap” because the last word they heard was “Zip.”
The more diabolical variation is this one: The change of order, so the moderator/referee might announce, “Okay, now it’s Zop-Zap-Zip.” This one tends to fall apart almost immediately. The most common error is for someone to respond to “Zop” with “Zip,” although “Zop” after “Zap” also happens.
Even more interesting: I’ve done this exercise in warm-ups where someone will suddenly arbitrarily change the consonants, and it does not affect play at all. We could be going along, and some suddenly says, “Skip.” Without missing a beat, we continue with “Skap”, “Skop,” even if not all of them are words.
That’s how hardwired this pattern is in our brains, anyway.
I won’t even get into the “Red Riding Hood Rule” now, but you also know that one instinctively, and it has to do with the proper order of adjectives when describing a thing. So, if I gave you the noun “dragon” and a list of adjectives to describe it — greedy, old, vengeful, fire-breathing, big, scaly, scary — you would automatically be able to put them all in the right order.
And no cheating by just saying “Smaug-like!”