The Rule of Ablaut Reduplication

Why `tock-tick’ does not sound right to your ears.

Ever wondered why we say :

tick-tock, not tock-tick,

or  ding-dong, not dong ding;

King Kong, not Kong King…?

Turns out it is one of the unwritten rules of English that native speakers know without knowing.

The rule, explains a BBC article, is:  “If there are three words then the order has to go…I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O.”

Mish-mash, Chit-chat, Dilly-dally, hilly-shally ,Tip-top,Hip-hop, Flip-flop, Tic-tac, Sing-song, Ding-dong, King Kong, Ping-pong.“

There’s another unwritten rule at work in the name Little Red Riding Hood, says the article.

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: Opinion – Size – Age -Shape – Colour -Origin – Material -Purpose – Noun. “

So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest… you’ll sound like a maniac.“

That explains why we say “little green men“ not “green little men,“

But “Big Bad Wolf “ sounds like a gross violation of the “opinion (bad)-size (big) noun (wolf)“ order.

It won’t, though, if you recall the first rule about the I-A-O order…!!  Got it..?

That rule seems inviolable:

“All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound.  But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip.“

This rule even has a Technical Name…! If you care to Know it…*the Rule of Ablaut Reduplication…!*

But then…

Life is Simpler, Knowing that we Know the Rule… Without Knowing It…!