Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-aye, mishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.
Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.
As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.
Reduplication can be categorised as follows: exact or repeating reduplication (bye-bye, hush-hush, goody-goody), rhyming reduplication (itsy-bitsy, okey-dokey, boogie woogie), and ablaut reduplication (chit-chat, tip-top, riff-raff). Ablaut is a term introduced by Jacob Grimm; it refers to vowel change, which in reduplicatives often follows certain patterns: zigzag, knick-knack, mingle-mangle, or criss-cross, flip-flop, sing-song.
Clusters of letters recur, as in shilly-shally, dilly-dally, silly billy and willy-nilly, while ‘h’ is a common first letter, appearing thus in helter-skelter, heebie-jeebies, hurdy-gurdy, hurly-burly, higgledy-piggledy, hocus-pocus, and hob-nob. Some reduplication is onomatopoetic or echoic: pitter-patter, splish splash, ding-dong and tick-tock are like miniature poems, popular with people of all ages who appreciate the playful evocation of the sound referred to.
In her paper ‘A crosslinguistic study of reduplication’ (PDF), Shanthi Nadarajan writes that both repetition and reduplication ‘exist functionally and pragmatically in all types of everyday English’, and that while not all reduplication is meaningful, it is undoubtedly ‘interesting word play which can serve to enrich any language’.
Reduplication is for everyone, be they arty-farty or fuddy-duddy, ragbag or hoity-toity, razzle-dazzle or nitty-gritty. You can use it on a walkie-talkie, or to distract listeners from your mumbo-jumbo. Chances are you’ve created your own examples of ‘shm-reduplication’, as in fancy schmancy or rhyme shmyme (both shm– and schm– are used). There’s nothing wishy-washy about my feelings for reduplication: I think it’s just super-duper.Email this Post