Why is it TikTok, not TokTik?

31 May 20233 mins read

Why is it TikTok, not TokTik?

As a learner, do you remember learning the rule governing English adjective order? While it’s true that there’s no limit on the number of adjectives before a noun, the tendency is to use up to four and there’s what we might call a ‘linguistic blueprint’ when it comes to ordering them. You may have been taught it, and the order goes like this: speaker’s opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose + noun. This means that Anglophones instinctively produce utterances like ‘a gorgeous, little, vintage, rectangular, red, leather evening bag’ – though admittedly all those adjectives in one sentence are a mouthful.

So if this is a given rule, why is it that we talk about Little Red Riding Hood and ‘the big, bad wolf’? Surely the opinion adjective is ‘bad’, and should come before the size adjective. The answer to this conundrum is the terrifying-sounding feature of ‘ablaut reduction’. In a nutshell, ablaut reduction is a long-standing rule which dictates that, when using any binomials (pairs of words often joined together by the duplication of a shared sound), we put the i or the e sound first, before an o, a, u or other vowel sound. Complicated? Let’s investigate some common examples.

The game more formally known as table tennis is ping pong (i sound before the o sound); children play on a see-saw (i sound before the /ɔ:/) and in American English, it’s a teeter totter (same rule); you might shilly-shally (delay before making a decision) or dilly-dally (waste time); we wear flip-flops to the beach or around the pool, and we talk about various things as this and that, not that and this. The same rule governs bits and bobs (possessions, or small individual things).

This is all well and good, but why should it be this way? Although these word combinations are mostly rather playful and memorable, it’s all to do with sound and where different sounds are produced in the mouth. Try it: when you say flip-flop, the tongue making the i sound is higher in the mouth, then drops lower to make the o sound. It is this high vowel to low vowel shift that gives the nice rhythm. Try some more examples: King Kong, sing-song, tick tock, chit-chat (friendly conversation about trivial matters), mish-mash/mishmash (an untidy or confused mix of different things). You should clearly feel the high to low position of your tongue as you move from the first sound to the second.

What about trinomials? Even with three elements, the rule applies: the sound order is still i (or e), then a or o, which is why we explain how easy or efficient a process (often one with three steps) is as bish, bash, bosh: ‘Clutch down, into first gear, handbrake off and you’re away. Bish, bash, bosh. Simple as that.’

Do you feel you know a bit more about ablaut reduction now? Here’s a final fact. The term itself is German: the prefix ab meaning ‘down’ or ‘reducing’, plus Laut, meaning ‘sound’. Its origin as a linguistic feature can be traced back to around 1710. I know that German has it (Krimskrams – stuff, odds and ends), but I don’t know enough other languages to say whether it’s a feature beyond German and English. Maybe you can let us know if your mother tongue also does it.

Clare Henderson, Teacher at Bell Cambridge