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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2 responses

  1. I think your first bullet touches on it, but I’ve frequently thought of it as a method to enforce the strict definition of the word
    “Who was that guy you were with last night? Is he your boyfriend?”
    “He’s not my boyfriend boyfriend, but we’ve been seeing each other a few times”

    Or
    “I’ve got some time off work and I’m going on proper holiday holiday, not just sitting at home reading a book!”

    Each specifies that although the word can have a fairly loose meaning, the duplication enforces the strict definition. Although I guess the followup question is how do we agree on the strict definition…? I’m not sure on other European languages, but I know you can also do this in French and Italian.

    • Hm, you make a compelling point with example number two: “I’ve got some time off work and I’m going on proper holiday holiday, not just sitting at home reading a book!” In this case it seems to make “holiday” more intense, not less. I do like the thought of it narrowing the meaning, though. So you could say that “boyfriend boyfriend” is a subset of “boyfriend” and that “like like” is a subset of “like”… This could be an interesting problem for people computationally modelling semantics!

      I’ve also done some more research since I wrote this post and came up with some other examples in English: words like “artsy-fartsy”, which have partial reduplication, and the “monsters schmonsters” construction. These seem to have a similar, but not parallel effect on scope. Something that is “artsy-fartsy” isn’t really intensely art-like so much as it is mockable. No one would call the Mona Lisa “artsy-fartsy”, for example, even though it is definitively “art-like”. So it means something like “things which are related to art but do not have the cultural capital of ‘true’ art, which requires respect”. The “monster schmonsters” construction is very similar, implying that the monsters aren’t dangerous, or that the speaker isn’t worried about them. So you still have that narrowing of scope, but at the same time it doesn’t really intensify the meaning of the word. In fact it seems to dilute it…

      Ok, I really went a bit off the semantics deep end there. Moral of the story: you’re right. After some more thought, I don’t think “deintensifier” is an accurate term. I’m going to go with “scope-narrower” instead. If we maintain a set/sub-set relationship between the base word/reduplicated word I think that it really captures this relationship.

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