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Techly Explains

Techly Explains: Why we say tick tock, not tock tick

Have you ever wondered why certain phrases in the English language sound completely ridiculous when said in a slightly different way?

Imagine that you’re at lunch with a co-worker. They’re gnawing your ear off about how cute their kid is. While you’re munching your chicken schnitzel, they mention that they’ve just started reading two nursery rhymes: Red Little Riding Hood and The Little Pigs Three.

You stop and consider what the hell they just said. All the right words were there, but it sounds like the ramblings of an utter lunatic. You can’t quite put your finger on why, but you just know it’s wrong.

And you’re right.

There are several unwritten linguistic rules native English speakers know, but don’t know we know. In his book, The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth details the complex processes that subconsciously occur within your brain while speaking or writing.

One particular paragraph explains the proper order of adjectives:

“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. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Imagine trying to remember that formula every time you described something. Well, you actually do – you just don’t know it! These rules are so deeply embedded within the way we speak and write that we don’t even realise how complicated the language really is.

Another equally familiar (and elusive) linguistic law is the rule of ablaut reduplication. It might sound like a futuristic piece of Star Trek technology, but ablaut reduplication is actually something we use in everyday life.

As explained by Forsyth in a BBC article, the maxim applies when you repeat a word, either with an altered consonant (nitty-gritty) or an altered vowel (ding-dong).

“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,” Forsyth writes.

That’s why we don’t sing “dong ding the witch is dead”, we don’t play “pong ping” at the Techly office, we never listen to “hop hip” music, and the clock on the wall doesn’t go “tock-tick”.

I’ll let you have the fun of trying to think of exceptions to the rule, but here are some more examples:

  • King Kong, Kit Kat, zigzag, chit chat, riff raff, Tic Tac, mish mash, dilly dally, sing-song and flip flop.

While there’s no doubt about its ubiquity, linguistic scholars are uncertain of the rule’s origins. Academic theories posit that it could be to do with the way our tongues move or be the remnants of an ancient language of the Caucasus, a region of southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia.

The origin hardly matters. Both ablaut reduplication and the order of adjectives are unequivocal laws – whether you know it or not. I mean, it’s really an incredible thing. How many other laws exist that you aren’t aware of yet follow on a daily basis?

As native speakers, we are specialists of the English language.  When you think about word order, grammatical laws, the 20 tenses that we use in writing and conversation – not to mention actual pronunciation – learning the language from scratch seems to be an impossible task.

Before learning this, only one golden grammatical rule had really stuck with me: “I before E, except after C.” Oh, and did anyone else learn how to spell “beautiful” courtesy of Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty?

There you have it. Thanks to the rules highlighted by Forsyth, you finally know what you already knew, now you just know that you know it; ya know?

[Lead image by Alexey Sokolov via icons8]

About the author

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. Contact me at jackndelaney@gmail.com.

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