Always mish before the mash and never the tock before the tick

Mish-mash, tick tock, ping pong, King Kong, chit-chat and clip-clop trip off the tongue. But reverse the order and the tongue protests. Bing bong is fine but bong bing just does not work. English is replete with examples. Tip top, flip flop, shilly shally, hip hop, pitter patter, sing song and flim flam among many others. It is even acceptable to create such duplications for rhetorical effect even if the meanings are not defined as long as the unwritten rule is followed. You could write kling klang but not klang kling. Frippery-frappery, hee haw, pish posh, tip tap, Kit Kat, or flik flak would all be okay but none of the reverse. Invent new and unusual combinations and the unwritten rule still applies. Mish-mosh not mosh mish. Clip clap but not clap clip.

Reduplication is the label for creating new words by the repeating of some or all of a word for rhetorical effect. Almost all languages use reduplication. The simplest form of reduplication is with just an exact repetition of a sound which has its origins, I would guess, in the babble of infants. It creates rhythm. The rhythm of language would seem to be a cognitive trait. Mama, papa, dada, tata, and nana all originate in infancy and have all become words with specific meanings. There are three kinds of reduplication:

  1. Exact reduplication, (ma ma, pa pa, bang bang, …)
  2. Rhyming reduplication (super-duper, hoity-toity, hanky-panky, ….), and
  3. Ablaut reduplication

The pattern by which vowels change in reduplication to form a new word or phrase with a specific meaning is called ablaut reduplication. In English the discovered rule is i before a or o. It is not a a rule which has been imposed but is one created by usage and discovered to hold. There are almost no examples in English of ablaut reduplication where the first vowel is not an i. The second word is nearly always with a or o. There are a very few examples of usage with three words in sequence, but where they do occur the i before a before o still applies (bing bang bong, sing sang sung). 

It is not just a simple matter of following vowel classification. Vowels are usually classified according to the position of the tongue in the mouth from high to low and from front to back. High to low gives (i, u, e, o and a) while front to back gives us (a, e, i, o and u). 


Vowel, in human speech, sound in which the flow of air from the lungs passes through the mouth, which functions as a resonance chamber, with minimal obstruction and without audible friction; e.g., the i in “fit,” and the a in “pack.” Although usually produced with vibrating vocal cords, vowels may be pronounced without such vibration, resulting in a voiceless, or whispered, sound. From the viewpoint of articulatory phonetics, vowels are classified according to the position of the tongue and lips and, sometimes, according to whether or not the air is released through the nose.

A high vowel (such as i in “machine” and u in “rule”) is pronounced with the tongue arched toward the roof of the mouth. A low vowel (such as a in “father” or “had”) is produced with the tongue relatively flat and low in the mouth and with the mouth open a little wider than for high vowels. Midvowels (such as e in “bed” and o in “pole”) have a tongue position between the extremes of high and low.

High, middle, and low vowels are also classified according to a front-to-back dimension. A front vowel is pronounced with the highest part of the tongue pushed forward in the mouth and somewhat arched. The a in “had,” the e in “bed,” and the i in “fit” are front vowels. A back vowel—e.g., the u in “rule” and the o in “pole”—is produced with the back part of the tongue raised toward the soft palate (velum).

Ablaut theory has an explanation (sort of) for why the i, a, o rule applies.

How does Ablaut reduplication work?

In Indo-European languages, the primary, inherent vowel of most syllables is a short e. Ablaut is the name of the process whereby the core vowel, which is almost always an e as mentioned above, would either be lengthened, altered to an o, altered and lengthened, or completely removed, known as the zero grade (an example of a zero grade: does not – doesn’t). These alterations on the way e sounds are what is known as Ablaut grades. This results in five ablaut grades overall: full grade (e), altered grade (o), lengthened grade (ee), altered length grade (oo), and zero grade (nothing). The first vowel is almost always a high vowel. This is then followed by the repetition of a lower vowel in relation to the first vowel. This is why the order is I, A, O.

Ultimately it is human physiology, ease of production and our sense of rhythm (cognition) which creates the sequences our tongues follow. It is physiology first and then cognition which determine the sequences of sounds we produce. The (i, a, o) rule is a discovered rule and only describes what comes naturally. It is not a rule that is invented and imposed.

And Spike Milligan’s Ning Nang Nong (in the style of Edward Lear) complies with the rule – how not?
On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There’s a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can’t catch ’em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong

Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!
Spike Milligan (1959)

%d bloggers like this: