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March 20, 2015

High school English really let me down. As far as it was concerned, there were three possible parts of a word: roots, prefixes, and suffixes. As in im-poss-ible that there could be anything else.

So when I took introductory morphology (word structure) in university, imagine my surprise in learning there was more! And while transfixes are very neat, what really gets me is reduplication. That’s where a word is doubled, or partly doubled, to add extra meaning. Like, if you say a verb twice in a row (runrun), that might mean “happened for a longish period of time”, or if you double half an adjective (bigig), that could mean “very”.

It’s a cool and useful idea, and I’d like to know who can up with it first, for each language group that uses it, and why. Mostly the why.

Interestingly enough, a number of European languages use reduplication for various purposes. Even English! The English ones give me particular glee, probably because I’m an English speaker myself and really like how reduplicated English words sound. Of course, some of the reduplication is more acceptable and some of it is decidedly colloquial.

In no particular order, we have:

  1. onomatopoeia – dogs say ruff ruff, birds say tweet tweet, sheep say baa baa
  2. baby talk – when talking to small kids and animals, we say things like bye-bye, choo-choo, and pee-pee
  3. rhyming A – razzle-dazzle, ragtag, super-duper *
  4. rhyming B – mockery or infantilization, with the diminutive [i] suffix: hoity-toity, easy-peasy, itsy-bitsy, Does oo want a kissy-wissy, Georgie Porgie?
  5. ablaut (vowel changes) – I think there’s a suggestion of dual identity?: flimflam, chit-chat, splish-splash, drip-drop
  6. shm – derision, as in books-shmooks, fancy-shmancy, and history-shmistory
  7. contrastive – for clarification: Is that soy milk or milk-milk?
  8. comparative – progression of a state: My novel is getting longer and longer.**

And I used to think the nuts and bolts of English were boring. I wish I had more opportunities to use these sorts of words in daily life. I wish more people were aware of the cool thing they’re doing when they talk. (Well, one of the many cool things they’re doing, anyway.)

Someday I’ll put reduplication into a conlang for a writing project. Maybe even the one I’m working on now. That’ll be so much fun!


* My brain needs more data than is on hand to sort out meanings and rules for replacement letters on this one, and yes, I partly have a linguistics degree because that’s where my brain goes with this stuff.

** Yeah, that one I’m on the fence about, but They Say, so I might as well include it.

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