The Fun World of Reduplication

          Every language has developed some fun quirks, and English is no exception. Reduplication is one such characteristic. It appears in many different languages, but we’ll focus on English. When you hear an example of reduplication, it sounds simple. And yet, many linguists and experts have studied the mystery of its development and rules.

What Is It?

            Reduplication is simply a form of repetition of words or sounds such as “water-water” or “wishy-washy.” This type of repetition has been in evidence in English for hundreds of years. No one is entirely sure how it came about or where it came from, but it is here to stay. It also follows specific rules, even though it wasn’t something formally introduced into the language.

Types of Reduplication

            There are several different types of reduplication. The first is simple reduplication in which the word is repeated, usually to stress that you’re talking about the real or original version of something. So, if I wanted to make it clear that I wanted you to hand me a regular water and not a coconut water, I might ask you for “water-water.”

            Another type of reduplication is consonant reduplication. The ending sound stays the same but the first consonant changes. An example of this could be “hodgepodge” or the dance called hokey pokey.

            Finally, there is my favorite type of reduplication: ablaut reduplication. This form involves the changing of vowels. Many examples exist of this one, such as “chit chat,” “zig-zag,” “tick-tock,” or “ding-dong.”

Rules of Reduplication

            What is even more interesting about reduplication is that it exists in many different languages, even those that are outside the same language family as English[1]. Ablaut reduplication follows a specific order for vowels. I’s always come before A’s or O’s. The rules of order for sounds that occur in reduplication can be found elsewhere, such as in the order of adjectives before the noun they modify[2]. Even though English is filled with reduplications, the creation of new ones has declined significantly. There are actually many established reduplications that have died out in popularity as well.

            Reduplication in all of its forms is one of the many interesting aspects of language. It exemplifies how language affects communication through context, connotation, and phonetics. People can actually clarify or convey meaning simply by repeating words or sounds. The sound of reduplication even affects how people speak, as grammar rules change depending on how vowels are ordered. You should watch out for reduplication around you. Because of its inherit marketability, it can be found everywhere. Share your favorite reduplication in the comments section!

[1] O’Conner, Patricia T. and Kellerman, Stewart, Oct. 2, 2019, Grammarphobia, Vowel movement (blog post),

[2] Ibid.

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