Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Some People Like Rap, but I Like Hop-Hip

Richard Firsten is a retired ESOL teacher, teacher-trainer and columnist

Oh, so you think there’s a typo in the title, do you? Well, no, it’s written that way deliberately. And why shouldn’t it be hop-hip instead of hip-hop? The way you’ve reacted to the title, you’d think there’s a rule or something about this. Well, guess what. There actually is!

Way back some 6,000 years or more, there was a language which linguists now refer to as PIE, Proto-Indo-European. It was the mother tongue which gave rise to what we now call the family of modern Indo-European languages, from Hindi and Farsi in the East all the way to Irish and Scots Gaelic in the West.

There was a two-part phonological rule in PIE (which linguists can’t figure out a reason for) that has remained unchanged all these millennia and can still be found in modern English. It’s called ablaut reduplication, and it explains why we say hip-hop and not hop-hip. Following is a list of examples that show you this rule in operation. Let’s see if you can discern what the two parts of the ablaut reduplication rule are. (This is where you cover up what comes after this list so you won’t peek at the answers before trying to figure all this out yourself.)

splish splash                     tic tac toe                  spring, sprang, sprung

ping pong                         fiddle-faddle              Hi Ho!

dilly-dally                         tip-top                      zigzag

flim-flam                          chit-chat                   sing, sang, sung

ring, rang, rung                Big Bad Wolf              riffraff

tick tock                           singsong                   wishy-washy

pitter-patter                     sink, sank, sunk         shrink, shrank, shrunk

jingle-jangle                     ship shape                 bing bang bong

crisscross                         flip-flops                    clip-clop

ding dong                         hip-hop                     knick-knack

Well, are you scratching your head or have you figured out what’s going on? It’s amazing how we have a rather complex phonological rule that all native English speakers know how to use perfectly even though very few of us are aware that there’s actually a language rule going on. For me that’s a wow!

Ablaut Reduplication, Part 1: When there are two identical words in our phrase, the first one must have an i as its vowel and the second one either an a or an o as its vowel. Look at our first example. The first word has the i and the second word in this example has an a. Now look at the example under it. The first word has that i and the second word has an o. So the rule is that we must maintain the vowel order i-a or i-o when creating these two-word phrases, and if there are three words in the phrase, the order will be i-a-o. Check out all the other examples and you’ll see this rule holds true in every case.

Let me point out something, however, that I consider amusing. It’s the case of Big Bad Wolf. If you recall the rule for adjective word order in English, you know that we utter opinion adjectives before other adjectives. For instance, we say that beautiful, neon sign. We wouldn’t say that neon, beautiful sign. Well, bad is an opinion, so we really should say the Bad Big Wolf, shouldn’t we? Well, we don’t. But why don’t we? Because that breaks the rule of ablaut reduplication even though the two words involved here (bad and big) aren’t exactly identical. It just goes to show you that the rule of ablaut reduplication is so embedded in us and so strong that we’re willing to break the rule of adjective order to comply with ablaut reduplication; that’s why we say the Big Bad Wolf!

Ablaut Reduplication, Part 2: When there are three identical words as the components of strong verbs (irregular verbs) in which the only change in grammatical function is demonstrated by an internal vowel change, the order will still be i-a, but now instead of an o we have a u. Check out the fifth example down in the first column: ring, rang, rung. If you check out all the other strong verbs in the examples, you’ll see they follow the same pattern of i-a-u instead of i-a-o.

So there you have it. Can this phonological rule help you in teaching English? It certainly can! Since you’re now sensitized to the existence of ablaut reduplication, you can teach so-called irregular verbs by listing all those together that follow this rule and make a little rhyming song out of them to help your students avoid confusion as to which of the two words in these phrases goes first (the ones containing the i). And, of course, if conversation starts lagging during your next dinner party, ask your guests why we say ding dong for the sound of a doorbell and not dong ding. That’ll get the conversation going again!


Comment from Kristine Fielding
May 29, 2019 at 7:37 pm

This isn’t something I had thought about before. Thanks for sharing! It would be interesting to know which language influenced this phenomenon. Any ideas?

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