Language Corner

Ablaut time

April 1, 2021
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Which made-up phrase sounds better to you: “sack sick” or “sick sack”? How about “make mock” or “mock make”? 

If you’re a native English speaker, you are probably more comfortable saying “sick sack” and “make mock,” even though they are nonsense phrases.

But why?

You’re certainly familiar with “TikTok,” the app that allows you to share short videos, which sounds just like “tick-tock,” the noise a clock makes. A horse’s hooves go “clip-clop,” you shouldn’t “dilly-dally,” and “KitKat” is a delicious candy bar.

Do you see a pattern? No? It’s called “ablaut reduplication.” Does that help? Didn’t think so.

Our friend Lisa McLendon, who tweets as MadamGrammar, explained the pattern in a posting for ACES: The Society for Editing. (Disclosure: this columnist is a member of the executive committee of ACES.)

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“The vowel sounds in these words move from the front to the back of your mouth: say ‘bit bet bat bought but’ out loud and pay attention to where in your mouth you’re making the vowel sound to find out how this works. For English ablaut reduplication, the order is generally short I to A or O, but even phrases like hee-haw (which doesn’t have an I, A, or O sound) follow the front-to-back pattern.”

That’s why “sick sack” and “make mock” likely sound better to you. Even if you never learned it, you’ve probably internalized this rule; you practice it even without knowing it.

Let’s break down the phrase “ablaut reduplication.” Warning: It’s not easy, but it’s kinda fun.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ablaut” as “The morphological variation of a root vowel in Germanic and other Indo-European languages.” Well, that clears it up. Merriam-Webster says “ablaut” is “a systematic variation of vowels in the same root or affix or in related roots or affixes especially in the Indo-European languages that is usually paralleled by differences in use or meaning (as in sing, sang, sung, song).” Still not clear.

Garner’s Modern English Usage defines “ablaut” as “The variation in the vowels of related words, usu. indicating a change in meaning or use. This is typical of irregular verbs when they are conjugated <sing-sang-sung>.” Another name Garner’s uses for “ablaut” is “gradation,” which it defines as “Inflection produced by changing a vowel in the root word.”

The term “ablaut” was introduced by Jacob Grimm, a German who introduced “Grimm’s law” of linguistics, also called the “First Germanic Sound Shift.” The only thing you need to know about that is that “ablaut reduplication” occurs in other languages, too.

“Reduplication” sounds illogical, like “irregardless” (which is too a word), where the “re-” prefix seems to, um, duplicate the “duplication” part of the word. But it is a linguistic term, odd though it might be that linguists would use something like that. Garner’s says “reduplication” is “the formation of the double-barreled word or phrase by having the second part repeat some of the first part, as in flim-flam, helter-skelter,” etc.

“Ablaut reduplication” is not the only kind of reduplication. English has “exact reduplication,” where the word is repeated, as in “I like-like KitKat.” We have “rhyming reduplication,” as in “teeny-weeny.” Some say there is even “shm-reduplication,” where the “shm” sound replaces the beginning of the rhyming words, as in “fancy-schmancy.” Some reduplications mimic the sound they represent and are onomatopoetic, like “clip-clop” or “ding-dong.”

Conjugations of irregular verbs, like “drink, drank, drunk,” are “ablaut reduplication,” though a slightly different animal than made-up combinations like “KitKat.”

Now, we’re going for a candy bar. Bye-bye.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.