a phonic conspiracy between the world’s languages

These are grand words; we must make sure we deserve them. Listen to them again: ‘I love you’. Subject, verb, object: the unadorned, impregnable sentence. The subject is a short word, implying the self-effacement of the lover. The verb is longer but unambiguous, a demonstrative moment as the tongue flicks anxiously away from the palate to release the vowel. The object, like the subject, has no consonants, and is attained by pushing the lips forward as if for a kiss. ‘I love you’. How serious, how weighted, how freighted it sounds.

I imagine a phonic conspiracy between the world’s languages. They make a conference decision that the phrase must always sound like something to be earned, to be striven for, to be worthy of. Ich liebe dich: a late-night, cigarette-voice whisper, with that happy rhyme of subject and object. Je t’aime: a different procedure, with the subject and object being got out of the way first, so that the long vowel of adoration can be savoured to the full. (The grammar is also one of reassurance: with the object positioned second, the beloved isn’t suddenly going to turn out to be someone different.) Ya tebya lyublyu: the object once more in consoling second position, but this time — despite the hinting rhyme of subject and object — an implication of difficult obstacles to be overcome. Ti amo: it sounds perhaps a bit too much like an apéritif, but is full of structural conviction with subject and verb, the doer and the deed, enclosed in the same word.

Forgive the amateur approach. I’ll happily hand the project over to some philanthropic foundation devoted to expanding the sum of human knowledge. Let them commission a research team to examine the phrase in all the languages of the world, to see how it varies, to discover what its sounds denote to those who hear them, to find out if the measure of happiness changes according to the richness of the phrasing. A question from the floor: are there tribes whose lexicon lacks the words I love you? Or have they all died out?

Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

raggle-taggle and friends

Knock-knock, zigzag, hobson-jobson — words and phrases like these appear in English thanks to reduplication. According to Wikipedia, there are three types of English reduplication: exact, rhyming and ablaut (which is a fancy word for vowel permutation).

Exact reduplication is self-explanatory.

We are often creating exact reduplications on the fly when we want to stress that something is “real” or “authentic” (as opposed to its pale imitation). For example, in an interview with Tomer Zvulun I read:

You’ve been Assistant and Associate Director here at Seattle Opera in the past. What’s it like to come back, now as Director Director?

Apparently, “Director Director” here means “real” Director.

Wordle: ragbag

Although their parts rhyme, rhyming reduplication may be not the best term for the phrases in the table below. They are not just rhymes — apart from the first consonant, they are identical.

An amateur etymologist in me would like to see Latin nolens volens not only in Italian volente o nolente (that is kind of obvious) but also in Russian волей-неволей, English willy-nilly, Dutch willens of onwillens — of course, modified according to the law of Hobson-Jobson. But what about Albanian dashur padashur, Dutch goedschiks of kwaadschiks, French bon gré mal gré, Greek εκών άκων, Hungarian kénytelen-kelletlen, Malay mau tak mau, Polish chcąc nie chcąc or Romanian vrând-nevrând? It looks like we humans just love to rhyme.

A special case of rhyming reduplication is so-called shm-reduplication. It is often used to convey a dismissive or ironic feeling for a thus reduplicated word, as in metalinguistic, shmetalinguistic or forbidden, shmershmidden (courtesy of Bender Rodríguez).

In ablaut reduplication, it is the vowel (typically, the first vowel) that change. Many words formed this way are onomatopoeic.

Both rhyming and ablaut reduplications can be further classified like this:

  1. A combination of one meaningful word and its “mutated” form present for emphasis: jibber-jabber, super-duper
  2. Apparently nonsensical combination of two meaningful words: bee’s knees
  3. Apparently nonsensical combination of two nonsense words: heebie-jeebies
  4. Meaningful combination of two meaningful words: telltale, walkie-talkie

One can argue that the latter case has nothing to do with reduplication because the both parts already existed on their own.

Phrases like creepy-crawly, hunky-dory and topsy-turvy are similar to reduplications (in that they sound like baby talk) but they are neither rhyming nor reduplications.