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In language, it’s best to play by the rules

Karan Thapar

Have you ever considered how much of our lives are determined by rules? I don’t mean the rule of law. I’m talking of the more subtle ones that influence how we speak as well as those that we instinctively sense even if we haven’t always properly defined. I spent last week pondering this and it’s been quite delightful.

For instance, have you heard of the Rule of Ablautreduplication? Even if it sounds like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins it is, I believe, the correct term for a particular aspect of the English language. It determines why we say tick-tock or ding-dong and not tock-tick or dong-ding.

The truth is anyone who knows the English language would automatically say mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, flip-flop or sing-song. It’s one of the unwritten rules of English that native speakers automatically know. However, what most people, including the English themselves, don’t realise is that there’s a rule that determines the order. This is the Rule of Ablautreduplication.

Put simply, the rule ensures that if there are conjoined words the order in which they come is determined by their vowel content: ‘I’ before ‘A’ before ‘O’. Hence, tip-top or tic-tac. Got it?

Now for a second rule of English which, as far as I know, doesn’t have a name. It determines why we say Little Red Riding Hood and not Red Little Riding Hood. In other words, this rule ensures that adjectives in English, when used consecutively, have to be in a particular order: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose and then the noun. So you can have ‘a lovely, little, old, rectangular, green, French, silver, whittling knife’ but if you mess with that order, even slightly, it will sound maniacal.

If you don’t believe me observe this. We say little green men not green little men or pretty little girls and not little pretty girls.

However, like all good rules there are occasions when this one can seem a little confusing. Here’s an example. Big bad wolf is, prima facie, a violation of the opinion (bad) – size (big) – noun (wolf) order. But not if you remember the Rule of Ablautreduplication which states that ‘I’ precedes ‘A’ which precedes ‘O’.

The truth is that English speakers know these rules instinctively. After all, no one says bad big wolf? Big bad wolf comes automatically to everyone’s lips. This also means there are rules, like Ablautreduplication, which you automatically pick up when you learn to speak the English language. That makes them rules we know without knowing them!

Now to a few rules based on our experience of things. You won’t find them in any text book but I doubt if anyone will dispute them. There’s Lorenz’s Law of Mechanical Repair: ‘after your hands become coated with grease your nose will start to itch’ or Anthony’s Law of the Workshop: ‘any tool, when dropped, will roll to the least accessible corner’. We’ve all experienced Breda’s Rule of Halls and Auditoriums: ‘the people whose seats are furthest from the aisle arrive last’. And who can dispute Kovac’s Conundrum: ‘when you dial a wrong number you never get an engaged tone’. One of my favourites is Ruby’s Principle of Close Encounters: ‘the probability of meeting someone you know increases when you are with someone you don’t want to be seen with’. But the indisputable one must be O’Brien’s Variation Law: ‘if you change queues, the one you’ve left will start to move faster than the one you’ve entered’.


(HT Media)

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