Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Hinkery Pinkery

Posted by Neal on April 8, 2008

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, and in the chapter on phonetics he reveals an interesting pattern. Here’s what he says:

Why do we say razzle-dazzle instead of dazzle-razzle? Why super-duper, helter-skelter, harum-scarum, hocus-pocus, willy-nilly, hully-gully, roly-poly, holy moly, herky-jerky, walkie-talkie, namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo, loosey-goosey, wing-ding, wham-bam, hobnob, razza-matazz, and rub-a-dub-dub? I thought you’d never ask. Consonants differ in “obstruency” — the degree to which they impede the flow of air, ranging from merely making it resonate, to forcing it noisily past an obstruction, to stopping it up altogether. The word beginning with the less obstruent consonant always comes before the word beginning with the more obstruent consonant. (p. 166)

All his examples, naturally, fit this pattern perfectly. Taking the least obstruent consonants first, we have the glides: [y] and [w]. Pinker doesn’t have any items starting with [y], but he does have a few starting with [w]: willy-nilly, walkie-talkie, wing-ding, wham-bam (assuming that for my readers, wh is pronounced as [w] and not [hw]). These all fit his pattern with no problem, since no consonants are less obstruent than a glide.

A bit more on the obstruent side are the liquids ([l, r]), and nasals ([m, n], and for completeness, [ŋ], even though no words in English start with “ng”). I don’t know which of these two classes is the more obstruent, but if Pinker’s claim is true, it would be the nasals, since the element beginning with the liquid comes before the one beginning with a nasal in his item razza-matazz. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here. The other examples starting with liquids fall into line, since their second elements start with consonants other than glides or nasals: razzle-dazzle, rub-a-dub-dub, roly-poly, loosey-goosey.

Likewise, the second elements for the items starting with nasals all begin with consonants other than glides or liquids: mumbo-jumbo, namby-pamby.

More obstruent still are the fricatives, the consonants that force the air “noisily past an obstruction”: [f, v, ð, θ, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, h]. All but two of Pinker’s items have second elements that begin with a consonant that is not a glide, liquid, or nasal: super-duper, herky-jerky, hocus-pocus, hully-gully, helter skelter, harum scarum. (And my own additions: hanky panky, hokey pokey, higgledy piggledy, Humpty Dumpty, hickory dickory dock, hunky dory.) Now helter skelter and harum scarum have both elements starting with another fricative, [s], but this [s] is part of an [sk] cluster, and [k] is not a glide, liquid, nasal, or fricative, so we’re still good. But I was confused by Pinker’s citing of holy moly and hobnob, since I thought nasals were less obstruent than a fricative. OTOH, [h] is different from other fricatives. It doesn’t involve the tongue obstructing the airflow at all — just the air flowing through an open pair of vocal folds. So maybe this fricative isn’t so obstruent after all. I’ll give him these items as well, and add my own hugger mugger.

Next most obstruent are the affricates, [ʧ, ʤ]. Each consists of a stop and a fricative smushed together into one consonant. Pinker didn’t have any items starting with affricates, but I do: jelly belly and jiggery pokery, whose second elements do not start with glides, liquids, nasals, or fricatives.

I was so fascinated with Pinker’s observation that for the next few days I tried to think of other quasi-reduplicative word pairs and see if they fit the pattern, too. Some did, and I listed them above. But some didn’t. I’ll start with some items whose first element begins with a stop: [p, t, k, b, d, g]. If the second element begins with anything other than another stop, we have a counterexample. With that in mind, I call your attention to: boogie woogie, tutti frutti, ding-a-ling, Ducky Lucky, and Turkey Lurkey. And, of course, bowly holy. That’s a family term for a biscuit into which you dig a hole that you then fill with honey. I’m not making this up! It looks like there’s also at least one person out there who uses this term to refer to navels.

Next, a few that start with affricates: Chicken Licken, chug-a-lug, Chumbawamba. Each second element begins with a less obstruent liquid or glide. Now for a pair beginning with a fricative: fuzzy wuzzy. (Pinker even mentions this one elsewhere in the book to make a different point, but doesn’t mention it in this part.) OK, what about one starting with a nasal? Mellow yellow, with the second element starting with a glide.

What do you think? Are my counterexamples enough to trash Pinker’s rule, or do they have some commonality that we can use to formulate a class of exceptions? What examples can you think of?

UPDATE: I wrote to Steven Pinker and asked about these counterexamples. He was kind enough to provide some further information and references:

The discussion of order in conjunctions is based on an old paper written with Prof. David Birdsong, now at the University of Texas at Austin:

Pinker, S., & Birdsong, D. (1979). Speakers’ sensitivity to rules of frozen word order. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 497-508.

It was based on a theory proposed by two of our teachers at the time:

Cooper, W. E., & Ross, J. R. (1975). World order. Paper presented at the Papers from the parasession on functionalism, Chicago Linguistics Society.

In our paper we listed a number of principles, and tested their strengths by eliciting ratings. Number of initial consonants (more in the second conjunct) was pretty powerful (as in helter-skelter). We didn’t test compounds of the piggly-wiggly type, but they would fall under that generalization if, as many phonologists have proposed, “w” is mentally represented as a pair of phonemes.

The conjunctions whose second member begins with “l” does indeed violate the principle that the more obstruent consonant comes second. We are not sure why these examples systematically flout it. It is interesting that the consonant-obstruency principle was one of the weakest in our data, that there is little evidence that it applies across languages, and that speakers don’t apply it to new items in their second language. So it seems to be a marginal principle at best.

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19 Responses to “Hinkery Pinkery”

  1. Gavin said

    In one form of “baby talk” that I’m familiar of, the second repetition of a word always starts with a [w], and I assume that is what brings about “boogie woogie” (or “buggy wuggy”) along with “fuzzy wuzzy”. I can create some at random, and google seems to support that other people are using the same formula: “baby waby”, “teddy weddy”, even “jumpy wumpy”, but I think I might be overestimating the power of google.

    Not sure how that figures for the original assumption though.

  2. The Ridger said

    Also, some of yours are based off proper names – Ducky, Turkey, Chicken (well, for the genre they’re proper names) and ding-a-ling may be derivative (from ding-dong). Tutti frutti seems not to be the same sort of thing to me, as it’s meant to mimic (or suggest) Italian, isn’t it?

  3. david said

    maybe different languages have different rules – tutti frutti is Italian (and is also simply two words that rhyme, but can exist independently, a bit like ‘mellow yellow’) and thinks boogie woogie might have come from Bantu (although I think that might be a little too far fetched).

  4. david said

    feel free to edit the above post so that it makes sense. and feel free to delete this post.

  5. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I’ve seen h described as phonologically a sonorant rather than an obstruent before.

  6. Neal said

    Ridger and David:
    True, tutti frutti comes from Italian, but I’d say it’s been well anglicized in pronunciation, and many people might not even know its source. I didn’t until I was in high school. Same goes for boogie-woogie and whatever source language it came from (if it did).

    The Ridger suggests we might have a relaxing of the least-obstruent-first rule in the case of proper names, and David that the rule might not apply if two words that just happen to rhyme get put together in ways determined by syntax, not phonology. I myself considered the hypothesis that the rule is relaxed when just one of the elements is an already-existing word (e.g. boogie, or teeny in teeny-weeny). However, taken together or singly, these hypotheses don’t account for all my examples. Specifically, Chumbawamba is left out, as is pell mell (a new addition).

  7. Neal said

    Rachel, thanks for the phonological info on [h].

  8. The Ridger said

    Ah, but “pell mell” comes from French, so again it might be that other languages have other rules.

  9. Viola said

    Namby-pamby is a phrase I’d never heard before. Guess I call it mamby-pamby. Both have nasal sounds and it very well could be that I’ve heard the phrase incorrectly, but am reading it correctly.
    As an aside, the reference to navels reminds me of the time both our boys decided to make little faces around their navels. They named them Belly Bob and Blah Boy.

  10. Glen said

    There is a whole class of potential exceptions that come from attaching “shm-” to the beginning of a word to indicate scoffing: “father shmather,” “college shmollege” “television shmelivision,” etc. These would fit into your already-existing-word exception. They might also fit in the proposed foreign-language exception, as I assume the pattern comes from Yiddish.

  11. Neal said

    The Ridger: I don’t think foreign origin is necessarily grounds for an exception. Some items in Pinker’s list are possibly from other languages, too; hocus pocus (Latin), and mumbo jumbo (Swahili). The other languages may indeed have different rules, but the ones that don’t fit our phonotactic rules either won’t be adopted permanently, or will be altered so that they do fit.

    Glen: Right. I wouldn’t call these an exception so much as something generated by another rule entirely. Just like flat hat isn’t an exception; it’s just an ordinary phrase whose word order is dictated by the syntax (“put adjective before noun it modifies”) instead of by a rule about making funny rhymes.

    A few more exceptions to Pinker’s rule: Tinky-Winky, teeny-weeny, crackerjack.

    • Read said

      “Mumbo jumbo” is not Swahili. This is incredibly ignorant and lazy to claim it’s Swahili.

      • Neal said

        Wow, I didn’t even remember that I had said this. I’m not sure what source I’d read that led me to believe at the time that the origin was Swahili, but I look in the Random House Dictionary now and find that the source is unknown, and from other sources that some think the origin *might* be Mandinka (not Swahili). Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and my apologies for spreading misinformation.

  12. [...] Comments Neal on Hinkery PinkeryHolt on More on WhomeverGlen on Hinkery PinkeryMore on Whomever « Literal-Minded on [...]

  13. Glen said

    Another exception: purple nurple.

  14. According to my Ling Prof, “h” is a vowel in disguise.

  15. Shm reduplication is a different morphological process altogether and is related to stress not sonority. See Nevins and Vaux (2003) Metalinguistics Shemtalinguistics: The Phonology of Shm-Reduplication.

  16. [...] trick part has always come first. I wondered if it was some kind of phonetic thing going on, like roly poly or knick knack, but it doesn’t seem to fit the patterns. Unlike ping-pong or see-saw, the phrase trick or [...]

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