English is Weird


By Lauren Molin

Mama, zigzag, lovey-dovey, Salad-salad.

At first glance, these words/phrases have very, very little in common. But you might be surprised to find out that they all belong to a special category: reduplication.

Reduplication can be explained as the repetition (and occasionally the modification) of a word or part of a word which is then added to make a longer phrase. The first word is generally referred to as the ‘base’ and the second as the ‘reduplicant’. There are five types of reduplication: ablaut reduplication, exact reduplication, rhyming reduplication, shm-reduplication, and, a new type of reduplication that has started to emerge, contrastive focus reduplication.


In my last post, I mentioned that one exception to the adjective rule was big, bad wolf because it’s a little busy following the rules of reduplication. Specifically, ablaut reduplication. In this type of reduplication, the words must follow a vowel rule where words come in order of their vowels: I with a higher sound where the tongue is placed higher in the mouth, then A, and O, where the tongue has a lower placement. Common ablaut reduplicatives refer to action such as crisscross and zigzag, dingdong and chitchat. And, of course, we can’t forget Hip Hop.


Mama, Dada, papa, choo-choo!!

You might not know it, but your first words may have been what’s called exact reduplication, where you literally just take the first word and repeat it. Most adults don’t use the same reduplication that we used to use, but we use exact reduplication in everyday life (Bye-bye!). Others are in phrases like “Goody-goody two shoes”, and “yada-yada”.


Who doesn’t love a good rhyme? I mean, come on let’s be serious. After all, they’re super duper. Rhyming reduplication is just that: rhyming. Generally, it’s used to emphasize a word or put a cute spin on it. Ones you’ve probably heard are hoity-toity, itsy-bitsy, hocus-pocus, lovey-dovey, topsy-turvy, and the beloved bear, Fuzzy-Wuzzy.

An interesting tidbit about reduplication is that there seems to be a type used solely for derision, skepticism, and irony. Shm-reduplication. When used with consonant-starting words, shm replaces the first consonant (fancy-shmancy). When you start with a vowel, however, you usually just put shm in front of the entire word (apple-shmapple). Occasionally, instead of changing the first letter or adding to the beginning, you change the first stressed syllable (incredible-inshmedible). Another interesting fact: this type came to the United States with Yiddish speakers in about the 19th century.


“Do you like them or do you LIKE-like them?”

Interesting how a repeated word can change the whole meaning of a sentence. In this example, it changes like from like “as a human being existing in the same space and time” to like “and want to potentially date them for the unforeseeable future”. This repeating of words is called contrastive focus reduplication and it’s purpose is to intensify the meaning of the word. This is easily done by simply repeating the base word. If you really want to make it clear, though, you can add emphasis on the base word. Just in case.

Examples include SALAD-salad (to differentiate between a salad of greens and a salad of a different sort, like a snicker salad) and TOGETHER-together (differentiate between dating and being together at an event as friends).

Naturally, reduplication appears in other languages, too. In other languages, it often adds plurality to the word (Pangasinan: toó means ‘man’, totoó means ‘people’, manók means ‘chicken’ and manómanók = ‘chickens’), give it a different level of  intensity (Hunzib: bat’iyab = ‘different’, bat’bat’iyab’ = ‘very different’; Hindi: kaccaa = ‘raw’, kaccaa kaccaa =‘slightly raw’), or make it a continuous verb(Ilocano: agabása ‘read’, agbasbása = ‘reading’). There’s no escape in Japanese, either! From samazama for ‘various’ and even dokidoki to show one’s throbbing heart, you can hear reduplication being used everywhere in everyday conversation.


2 thoughts on “Reduplicate-schmuplicate

  1. Pingback: June: Volume 2 | Good Morning Aomori

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