Is It Just Us?

A foible of the English language is our fondness for words that repeat a syllable (or two) with a different vowel. Some examples:


I’m sure you can think of others. (There are also examples that are purely imitative of sounds, such as “ding-dong”, “tick-tock”, and “clip-clop”, but I’m not counting those.)

Do other languages do this?


  1. Mike in Boston says

    Is it just coincidence that this came to mind after a post on Pinker, or did the post bring up his The Language Instinct (1994)? There he writes:

    Have you ever wondered why we say fiddle-faddle and not faddle-fiddle? Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs rather than vice versa?

    There seems to be some discussion around using the terms ablaut reduplication and vowel-shift reduplication. One discussion among linguists included the claim that other Germanic languages have it too; a UPenn professor called it “less prolific in world languages”, but a different paper (full text not freely available, alas) claims that it’s a common pattern in children’s rhymes around the world. Once again there’s that interesting question of what true commonalities, perhaps biologically driven, exist among world languages.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says


    I’m very glad you stopped by!

    No, believe it or not, it was just a coincidence – although I can hardly see how it could have been; the question is so Pinkeresque. I just used the term “hodge-podge” earlier today, and then thought of “mish-mosh”, and then started wondering about the whole thing. But it does now seem as if Dr. Pinker had been living in my head…

    I’ve never read The Language Instinct. I think it’s the only one of Pinker’s books I haven’t read.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Harold says

    Not quite the same, but German has ‘gut und blut’ and many other ‘X und Y’ rhymes.;view=1up;seq=230
    That book is quite interesting, btw.

    Posted January 14, 2018 at 3:06 am | Permalink
  4. Harold says

    Um, ‘picnic’ comes from French, I don’t know if it counts.

    The book I linked, if you didn’t look at it, has more English examples of the type you mentioned and claims English was formerly richer in them.

    One interesting thing about that book is the number of words which it describes as dead which are now alive again.

    Something that amused me from it was that the -en plural suffix, as in oxen, used to be more common, including applied to bees which were ‘been’. Shoes were also ‘shoon’ which appears in Wuthering Heights.

    Posted January 18, 2018 at 7:32 am | Permalink

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