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About Ablaut

Hudson Cooper
Posted 1/14/22

The English language has a mishmash of rules pertaining to spelling and enunciation of the words we use to communicate. As we zigzag and crisscross through school, we learn a variety of those rules. …

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Random Thoughts

About Ablaut


The English language has a mishmash of rules pertaining to spelling and enunciation of the words we use to communicate. As we zigzag and crisscross through school, we learn a variety of those rules. In elementary school we recite “I before E except after C unless sounded like “A” as in neighbor or weigh.” We are also taught that the vowels are “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.”

However, there is one unwritten rule that is required if you want to be a tip-top communicator able to chit-chat in an accepted way. Welcome to the unwritten, but universally followed rule of “Ablaut Reduplication.” An ablaut is a systematic vowel change in base words that is associated with the order of usage.

Most of us have never heard of Ablaut Reduplication. However, all of us have unconsciously used it. In fact, I used it three times in the opening paragraph of this column. By typing mishmash, zigzag and crisscross instead of mashmish, zagzig and crosscriss I followed the unwritten rules of Ablaut Reduplication.

Reduplication without ablaut is easier to define. It is simply the repetition of words like choo-choo or bye-bye. The addition of ablaut occurs when the base word is not repeated but is altered with a different vowel. The vowels involved are I, A, O. For some reason the U, E and Y vowels are not part of the unwritten rule.

The rule is actually simple. When applied to three base words the order is always I, A, O. For example, “Let’s play a game of tic-tac-toe.” If instead you called it “tac-toe-tic” you would be the laughingstock of third grade. When the rule is applied to two base words the “I” goes first followed by the “A” or “O” in the second word. For example, you would not chat-chit with a friend about playing a game of pong-ping.

Even though nobody is certain how Ablaut Reduplication became the norm it is pervasive in our spoken and written communications. I may sound wishy-washy but saying some words in a nonconforming way just sounds wrong. To prove my point, try saying these aloud…knackknick, tocktick, splashsplish.

There is another unwritten rule that those of us who use the English language follow. It deals with adjectives. Adjectives should be used in the order of “opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose,” always proceeding the noun it describes. Linguists use the mnemonic device OSASCOMP to remember the order. The example used most often may come in handy should any of the rovers on Mars encounter life. If so, they will relay pictures back to mission control of “Little green Martians” and not “Green little Martians.” That is until those native inhabitants attack the rover with their “Destructive, gigantic, Martian, metallic intruder zappers.”

English is a difficult language to learn. With a myriad of written and unwritten rules it is no wonder that even some native speakers make mistakes. Imagine that you are coming to America for the first time. To become acclimated, you learn basic English. Eventually you might get frustrated with the nuances that complicate our language. For example, you learn that homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings. “Their teacher said there are different meanings to similar sounding words.” Eventually you hear about rules like Ablaut Reduplication and OSASCOMP and realize you have a long weighs to go.

As an aside, language is not alone in having rules of order. Mathematicians remember the order of functions by using the acronym PEMDAS or “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” So, a complicated equation is broken down in order of Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction. Bonus points are rewarded to the first of my readers who emails me the correct solution of: 25 x 4+(15-6)-3. So don’t dilly-dally!


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