Ever wonder why we say clocks go tick tock and not tock tick?
Or why the music genre is called hip hop and not hop hip?
If you ask most English speakers for a reason, they’ll likely respond it just sounds better that way. That may be true, but it turns out there is an actual rule we unconsciously follow called ablaut reduplication.
Ablaut reduplication is the pattern by which vowels change in a repeated word to form a new word or phrase. If there are three words, the vowel order is I, A, O. If there are two words and the first vowel is an I, the second is either an A or O. If there are two words and the first is an A, the second is an O.
You can easily find many two-word examples: chit chat, dilly dally, flip flop, tip top, sing song, and wishy washy. This is also true with brands like Ping Pong, TikTok, and KitKat. Three-word examples are rarer but include the phrases tic tac toe, stink stank stunk (The Grinch), and ding dang dong (Home Alone).
Apparently, the term ablaut was introduced by Jacob Grimm, the 19th-century German linguist. Yes, he was one of the Brothers Grimm who collected and published more than 200 popular fairy tales. If so, ablaut reduplication probably explains why we say big bad wolf; even though the phrase doesn’t follow the standard order of adjectives: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose-noun.
The order of ablaut reduplication might seem arbitrary but there is a practical reason for it. To create clearer pronunciation, the order of words should be from the front to the back of the mouth. As this source suggests, try saying “bit bet bat bought but” out loud and pay attention to where in your mouth you’re making the vowel sound. From front to back. E, I, A, U, and then O – consistent with ablaut.
While most of us have probably never heard of ablaut reduplication, it’s an unwritten rule of English we seem to know instinctively.
But is it unique to the English language? I would expect ablauts to exist in all Indo-European languages but I’ve struggled to come up with examples. If you know of any, please put them in the comments.
After all, I want to ensure that ablaut reduplication isn’t jibber jabber.