All4Ɇn wrote: ↑28 Apr 2020 19:33
KaiTheHomoSapien wrote: ↑28 Apr 2020 18:44
There are a lot of instances of reduplication in English where the first element contains /ɪ/ and the second contains some other vowel (often /æ/ or /ɑ/), so-called "ablaut reduplication".
For example: wishy-washy, mish-mash, bric-a-brac, pitter-patter, flip-flop, chit-chat, hip-hop, etc.
Is there any "explanation" for why the pattern is high vowel first/low vowel second?
Not only does this distinction involve high vowel/low vowel but also front-central-back. There are several terms in English where instead of it being 2 words with the pattern /ɪ~i æ~ɑ/, it's 3 words with the pattern /ɪ~i æ~ɑ u~ʌ~o/ such as tic-tac-toe or Big Bad Wolf (which even goes against the typical English rules for adjective order).
I don't see the relevance of the second one - 'big bad wolf' is just some ordinary words in a story. If you pick any three words from a fairy time, eventually you'll get the pattern you want. ("Once upon a time" and "happily ever after" don't follow any obvious pattern!). And how does it go against the typical rules? Size adjectives typically precede other adjectives - hence the opening song of Reservoir Dogs has someone singing about a "little green bag", not a "green little bag". Cf little red riding hood. It's true that adjectives of estimation can come first ("nice little place you have here!"), but often not ("There's a small bad apple in the barrel", not *bad small apple). And 'big bad' has the same order as similar phrases like 'big horrible...', 'big scary...', 'big ugly...', etc Come to think of it, is it just 'little' that can violate this rule?
From what I've read about this, no one really knows exactly why it's like this for sure. It seems to me like it has something to do with high vowels being perceived as more distinct than low vowels and front vowels being perceived as more distinct than back vowels. To me the first one of these seems more important. In two syllable reduplication, the preference looks more like height preference as English speakers prefer the order /ʊ~u æ~ɑ/ over the inverse. But once we're dealing with 3 syllable reduplication, it seems to me like then frontness comes into play as well. In that case we see /æ ɑ/ placed in the middle as the low vowels are seen as less distinct than the high vowels, and we see /ɪ~i/ before /ʊ~u/ because the front vowels are perceived of as more distinct than the back vowels.
I would go for a much simpler explanation: rhythm. Consider the phrase "tick-tock". In reality, most clocks don't go 'tick-tock' - they go 'tick-tick' (or 'tock-tock' if you prefer). But we hear them instinctively as 'tick-tock'. [if you concentrate, you can 'make' a clock go 'tock-tick' instead, or 'tock-tick-tick, tock-tick-tick' like a waltz, for example]
This is because we instinctively create rhythmic structures out of sequences of sound; these structures instinctively begin with strong beats, and strong beats are associated with higher pitch. /i/ has a high pitch, so we instinctively associate it with strong beats (every child knows a siren goes 'neee-norrrr' or 'weee-wahhh', even though you've got a 50% chance of actually hearing norrr-neee or wahhh-weee instead...). We associated back vowels and nasals with weak beats - which is why everybody knows that beethoven's fifth symphony goes 'da-da-da-DUM'. (why not di-da-da-DUM? you do get that, but less often, because it suggests a stronger initial beat, whereas the tune actively tries to blur that beat over the first three notes).
Anyway, it's a bit more complicated than that, but:
- if we hear or invent two similar sounds in sequence, we instinctively make the first one a stronger beat and the second one a weaker beat
- if we vocalise sounds, we tend to associate the stronger beat with /i/
- English in particular tends to have a strong initial beat anyway, so i-a and i-o patterns are even more likely.
So when we make up a nonsense word of two syllables, one intentionally mirroring the other there's going to be a strong instinct to make the first syllable /i/ and the second syllable something else. Talking about a zogzigging mashmish would be as counterintuitive as talking about a clock's tocktick!
As for 'tic-tac-toe' and the like... well, when you have 'tick' and 'tock' (or here 'tack'), the third beat needs to be a different vowel. If you repeat 'tock', you're putting into triple time, which doesn't come naturally. And if you repeat 'tick', then you leave people waiting for the 'tock'. So you need something that sounds like the end, but is distinct from the off-beat. So you'll have lots of /o/ and /u/ and /Um/ and the like.