Saturday, December 01, 2018

Vowel Change (Ablaut) Reduplicatives

More inspiration from the Holmes article in A Wilderness of Dragons. Holmes speculates that "great green dragon" might reflect the language rules or syntax of Tolkien's innate "native language" (or I-language).

Of particular interest is his third point, concerning phonology.  He says "there is a self-evident internal logic to the order of vowels that has nothing to do with the rules of E-language or any other cradle-tongue a child may learn" (149).  He suggests the vowel changes of a green great dragon "produce a charming sequence: there, down, and back again," progressing from  mid-central a, to high-front green, to mid-front great, to low-front dra, to mid-back/central -gon.

To me, this also raises the question of whether the vowel change reduplicative pattern found in "green great" (long E followed by long A) is common in English.  I couldn't think of any examples off-hand (the first ones that came to mind were flim-flam, dilly-dally, and ooh! ah! oh!), so I scouted around and found a list of vowel change reduplicatives compiled on Daily Writing Tips.

Their list only includes one long vowel sound, in see-saw.  Breaking it down, they came up with

  • short i - short a (11 examples):
    • chit-chat, dilly-dally, flim-flam, knick-knack, mish-mash, pitter-patter, riff-raff, riprap, shilly-shally, tittle-tattle, zigzag; see also splish splash (, big bad (, jibber-jabber (
  • short i - short o (4 examples):
    • clip clop, flip-flop, hip-hop, tick tock; see also tip-top (
  • short i - aw (3 examples):
    • criss-cross, ding-dong, ping pong; see also sing-song (

  • long E - aw (1 example):
    • see-saw; see also hee-haw (me), geepie-gawpie (
To this one might add:
  • short i - long A:
    • ship-shape (Brian Wasko)
  • short i - ah:
    • wishy-washy (Brian Wasko)
  • short i - schwa - short a:
    • bric-a-brac
  • oo - ah - long O:
    • ooh! ah! oh!
  • shot u - long O:
    • hunky-dory (Rastall via Preuszová)
  • long E - long E - long I - long O:
    • eeny, meeny, miny, mo (Preuszová):
As Visual Thesaurus observes: "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/."

ProEdit suggests: "In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels."

In her 2017 Bachelor Thesis, Preuszová refers to these vowel change reduplicatives as "ablaut reduplicatives – a group which consists of reduplicatives with alternated vowel."

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