Modern English has its normal share of nursery words, colloquial interjections, and miscellaneous other onomatopoeic or expressive words involving sound-repetition: daddy, baby, nanny, sissy, pee-pee, bye-bye, ta-ta, goody-goody, ding-dong, pop, riff-raff, hip-hop, bow-wow, cuckoo, hurdy-gurdy, tic-tac-toe, bubble, giggle, mumble, google, etc. English also has reduplicative words borrowed from other languages: dodo, can-can, dum-dum, yo-yo. Some of such imports are old and their reduplicative status is no longer obvious to non-specialists: barbarian, purple, turtle-dove. A few echoic words exhibiting a repetitive pattern are at least as old as the English language, whatever their ultimate origin; cock and chicken belong here.
|Traces left by a reduplication|
[Source: Beentree/Wikipedia CC]
Note, however, that the words listed above are not derived by reduplication. For example, giggle cannot be traced back to a simpler verb with only one occurrence of /ɡ/. In the overwhelming majority of cases the repetition is merely phonetic, not morphological. Reduplication in the proper sense of the word (involving a base and an echo) is not used in English to perform any of its typical, cross-linguistically common tasks, such as the formation of plural or collective nouns, verb stems of a particular aspect or tense, intensive verbs or adjectives, deverbal nouns, etc. This is one of those things that make English, together with some other languages of the northerly latitudes, a little weird.
Interestingly, morphological reduplication is given looser rein in some English-based creole languages, for example in Tok Pisin, where it seems to be on the rise as a derivational device – presumably as a result of contact with the heavily reduplicating indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea. Here are some examples:
kala ‘colour’ → kalakala ‘colourful’
bruk ‘break, fall apart’ → brukbruk ‘fall apart into many small pieces’
pilai ‘play’ → pilaipilai ‘play round’
ron ‘run’ → ronron ‘keep running’
tok ‘talk’ → toktok ‘conversation’
wil ‘wheel’ → wilwil ‘bicycle’¹
Has English preserved any really old reduplications, with cognates in other branches of the Indo-European family? Yes, but there are only a handful left, and most of them show no transparent reduplicative structure any longer. Among those relics there are at least two nouns, wheel and beaver (probably also tetter ‘skin disease’), one adjective, quick (provided that my etymology of PIE *gʷih₃wó- ‘living’ in Gąsiorowski 2007 is correct), and two verbs in the past tense, ate and did. Despite the fact that the two irregular past tenses represent the same modern category, they go back to different Indo-European verb forms, characterised by different reduplication patterns. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the regular past-tense ending – and not just the -d of loved, watched, waited, but also the -t/-d of kept, brought, sold – vaguely reflects an ancient reduplication as well, and has in fact the same origin as did. I will trace these connections later in this series.
¹ Since wil = Eng. wheel, which itself is an old reduplicated noun, Tok Pisin wilwil is a quadruplication, etymologically speaking.