Rap Reduplication

I love rap and hiphop. In addition to being a great example of how different cultural traditions can combine to create a uniquely American art form and fun to listen to (I don’t get much chance to stretch my English-major chops these days) it’s often a carrier of linguistic change. I mentioned one example of this earlier, when I was discussing language games and in-group/out-group language. But I’ve recently noticed another interesting linguistic phenomena in rap that you don’t really see in English very often: reduplication.

Whose work displays metrical complexity, rich cultural/literary/historical allusions and healthy lashing of dirty jokes? Trick question! It’s both. Man, I hope nobody in the future tries to claim that Jay-Z was actually Dick Chaney in disguise…

Reduplication is one of my favorite linguistic phenomena and a great example of a autological word. Basically, reduplication is a linguistic phenomena where you say the same thing twice. It’s also one of those rare phonological phenomena that are semantically meaningful. There are lots of ways to interpret what saying something twice means, but you there are a couple of pretty popular choices:

  • Probably the best English example is “Like like”, as in “I like him, but I don’t like like him.” It seems to serve as some sort of deintensifier (Yeah I just made that word up. Deal with it.) or to disambiguate between two possible meanings of the same word. It seems to serve to narrow the scope of the base word. So, “like-like” is a type of “like” and “holiday holiday” is a type of “holiday”. Apparently there’s a similar relationship in Italian and French (see comments).
  • In Koasati, (and Cree as well apparently) it’s used to indicate a repeated action. So it would be like if I said “cut-cut” in English to mean that I chopped something finely instead of cutting a piece off of  something.
  • In Mandarin it’s an almost juvenile marking, used to indicate “cuteness” or “smallness”. (You can see this in Hebrew as well.) You’ll sometimes see this in English, too, particularly from children.  If you hang out with young kids, keep your ears peeled for things like “bunbun” for “bunny”.
  • On the other, Mandarin also uses reduplication to indicate plurality. Khmer is another language that does this, and I think Japanese does as well. So that’s things like “bird” for one bird and “birdbird” or “bir-bird” for a flock of birds.
  • Finally, and this is what I think’s going on in rap, you’ll see reduplication to intensify things. Like I’d say a “red red” is a really intense red, or that someone who’s “short short” is really tiny.

I’ve been noticing this particularly with “truetrue”.  You can hear it in Chamillionare’s “I’m true”, both as “I’m true, I’m true” and “true true” in verse two. And Lil Wayne’s “My Homies Still” is absolutely rife with reduplication. You’ve got “click click” in the first line, and in verse four (which is Big Sean’s) you’ve got these lines:

Whoa, okay, boi this here’s what I do do
Got your sister dancing, not the kind that’s in a tutu
Got me in control, no strings attached, that’s that voodoo
She said can’t nobody do it better, I tell her, true true yep ***** true true
True true, my my bro bro say…

Of course, a grouping this concentrated speaks more towards an artistic choice than pervasive linguistic change… but it is something I’ve been noticing more and more. The earliest example I could find is GZA’s “True Fresh MC” from 1991, but I’m hesitant to call it reduplication, since there’s a definite pause between the first and second “true”.

Feel free to weigh in in the comments. Is this a legitimate trend or have I fallen prey to a recency illusion? Are there other examples that I’m missing? Is this something you say in everyday speech?

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The Many Moods of “Alarming”

So you’ll all be doubtless relieved to know that I have cheerfully settled in Seattle and immediately returned to my old tricks. Observe this gem brought to you by Seattle City Light:

Something’s alarming right enough… but I think it’s actually my linguistics sense.

Now, as both a linguist and native speaker of American English, I find this command troubling. Not because I have a problem with civic-minded individuals alerting the power company to potentially dangerous problems, but because it’s ambiguous. I’ve written about ambiguity in language before, but it’s something that I revisit often and it’s a complex enough subject that you can easily spend an entire lifetime studying it, let alone more than one blog post.

Let’s examine why this sign is ambiguous a little more closely.

First, there’s (what I would consider) a non-standard usage of the word “alarming”.  I tend to imagine something that is “alarming” to be capable of putting me in a state of alarm, rather than currently expressing alarm. Or, as the OED puts it:

“Disturbing or exciting with the apprehension of danger.”

Yeah, that’s right, “alarming” is one of the few words that the OED only has one definition for. Let’s put that aside for the moment, though, and assume that there’s a linguistically-creative sign maker working for Seattle City Light who has coined a neologism based on parallels with words like “understanding” or “revolving”. The real crux of the matter is that the command is not a sentence, and has just too many gaps where the reader has to fill in information.

These are just a couple of the possible interpretations I came up for the sign:

  • If [the alarm is] alarming (in the sense of performing the action which alarms traditionally do, such as whooping and revolving) [then] call.
  • If [you are] alarming [other people, then] call.
  • If [the alarm is] alarming [you, regardless of whether or not it’s currently flashing or making noise then] call.

Now, English syntax is a pretty resilient beast and can put up with a certain amount of words  left out. The fancy linguistics term for this is “ellipsis“, just like the punctuation mark. (This one: …) Words have to be left out of of certain places in certain ways,  though. Like you don’t have to say “you” every time you tell someone to do something. “Don’t sit there!” is perfectly acceptable as a sentence, and if someone told  you that you’d have no problem figuring out that they were telling you not to sit on their cat. Like everything else in language, though, there are rules and by breaking them you run the risk of failing to communicate what you’re trying to… just like this sign.