Posted in History & Literature

Bingo Bango Bongo

Spot the odd one out: King Kong, Ding Dong, Chit Chat, Jibber Jabber, Tick Tock, Flip Flop, Zag Zig. The last one is obviously wrong, with the correct version being “Zig Zag”. The astute reader may have noticed a funny rule here: in words that are repeated with only the vowel sounds changed, I comes before A and O.

This peculiar pattern is known as the IAO rule and it is best shown in the example “Tic Tac Toe”. For some strange reason, words just don’t sound right in English when it doesn’t follow the IAO rule. Pong Ping, Hop Hip, Dally Dilly and Clop Clip all just sound weird.

This rule is formally known as ablaut reduplication and it is seen in almost every English-speaking country. The origin of the rule is unclear (likely Germanic), yet it is so prevalent and ingrained into us. Even if you have never heard of “ablaut reduplication”, the words sound very wrong and awkward if said in a different order.

There is another strange rule in English when it comes to ordering words. When it comes to a list of adjectives, such as “Little Red Riding Hood”, not listing the adjectives in a specific order makes it sound strange.

For reference, the order is:

Opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose, then the noun.

This means that you can say something like “my big fat Greek wedding” or “that lovely large old brown French wooden clock”, but you can’t say “a red big ball” without it sounding off.

One notable exception is “the Big Bad Wolf”, where the opinion comes after the size. But if you look carefully, you can see it follows the IAO rule instead.

The more you learn about it, the more you realise how (sometimes needlessly) complex the English language is.

Posted in History & Literature

Kangaroo Word

An example of a word game is the concept of kangaroo words. Kangaroos are famous for carrying their babies (joeys) in their pouch. Similarly, a kangaroo word contains another word within itself that is a synonym (a word meaning the same thing). The joey word can be whole (such as [sign]al, where “signal” and “sign” are synonyms), or more typically (and interestingly), it can be split, such as in [ma]scu[l]in[e], where “male” is hidden amongst “masculine”. In this case, the word must be in the right order from left-to-right.

Variations of kangaroo words include anti-kangaroo words – where the word carries an antonym (opposite), such as “animosity” carrying “amity”) – or grand-kangaroo words – where the joey word itself is a kangaroo word, such as “alone” carrying “lone”, which carries “one”.

Try the following puzzle – can you find what the joey word is in each of these kangaroo words?

  1. Astound
  2. Banish
  3. Capsule
  4. Departed
  5. Exist
  6. Feast
  7. Gigantic
  8. Honourable
  9. Illuminated
  10. Latest
  11. Myself
  12. Nourished
  13. Observe
  14. Plagiarist
  15. Rampage
  16. Supervisor
Continue reading “Kangaroo Word”
Posted in History & Literature

Rosetta Stone

In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard came across a granite slab a couple of miles from a port city named Rosetta. The slab – about 112cm by 75cm in size – was densely filled with ancient inscriptions on one face of it. But strangely, there were three distinct languages written on the slab: Egyptian hieroglyphs, an unknown script and Greek.

The discovery of this stone sparked immediate scientific interest. Up until this point, no scholar had been able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs had not been used formally for almost 1800 years, so the way to read it had been lost to time. Europe was going through an “Egyptomania” at the time, with great interest in this ancient civilisation. However, little was known about the culture as the ancient texts could not be read.

People quickly noted that there was a strong chance that the so-called “Rosetta Stone” contained the same text in three different languages, which meant that if you could translate one of the languages, then you could decipher the alphabet of the other two. This proved to be true, with the text being a royal decree exempting priests from taxation. Numerous scholars from all over Europe pored over the Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The first step was to translate the Greek version, as ancient Greek had already been studied in depth by scholars.
Around a similar time, a Swedish linguist named Johan David Åkerblad figured out that the middle, unknown script was Demotic, a cursive script used in ancient Egypt. Åkerblad was able to decipher the Demotic alphabet by comparing it to the Greek script, particularly through comparing names, as both languages were largely phonetic, meaning the characters used to write the name will have the same sounds in the two languages.

The final step – deciphering hieroglyphics – proved to be much harder. It was theorised that hieroglyphs were not phonetic, but ideographic, meaning each letter represented a whole word or concept (similar to Chinese) rather than a sound. If this is true, then it is impossible to decipher the hieroglyphic alphabet just by comparing it to the phonetic Demotic and Greek scripts.

But then, one scholar named Silvestre de Sacy realised that foreign names would have been written phonetically, much like Chinese scripts. This allowed him to zero in to Greek names in each script, such as Ptolemaios, thus creating a skeleton for the phonetic alphabet for both  Demotic and hieroglyphs. Scholars could then use the phonetic reading of hieroglyphs to make more headway into reading the Rosetta Stone.

After 20 years of exhausting research, the Rosetta Stone was finally fully deciphered. The Rosetta Stone is famous because it was the key required to decipher the entire Egyptian hieroglyph system, while birthing the new field of Egyptology. Being able to read hieroglyphs allowed us to better understand the ancient Egyptians’ way of life. Nowadays, the term Rosetta Stone is also used as a symbol of a key to understanding an entirely new field of knowledge.

Posted in History & Literature


We are often corrected by others (as much as we correct others) on the proper pronunciation of words. Luckily, improper pronunciation is rarely consequential (other than sparking debates such as how to pronounce the word “gif”). However, on numerous occasions throughout history, this was not the case.

During World War 2, American soldiers in the Pacific Theatre came up with a questionable way of detecting enemy soldiers pretending to be allies to sneak in to bases. If a suspicious person was to approach a checkpoint claiming that they were an American or Filipino soldier, the sentry would ask them to say a certain word. The word was “lollapalooza” – an American colloquialism for something that is exceptional and extraordinary. The basis for this test was that Japanese people tend to pronounce the English letter “l” as “r” due to the difference in the two languages. Therefore, if the person was to repeat back “rorra-” they would be immediately shot.

This seems like a highly inaccurate method. What if they were an American soldier who had a bad head cold, or a lisp? But this type of racial profiling by the way someone pronounces a certain word has been commonly used throughout history to filter out people of certain races. Lollapalooza is an example of a shibboleth – a word that can distinguish people of a certain race by their inability to properly pronounce it.

The word comes from the Biblical story of the Ephraimites. When the Gileadites were invaded by the Ephraimites, they fought back and repelled the Ephraimites, who tried to retreat by crossing the River Jordan. The Gileadites planned ahead by securing the river so that they could capture the Ephraimites. They ordered each person crossing the river to say the word “shibboleth”. Because the Ephraimite’s dialect did not include a way to pronounce the “sh” sound, they would repeat back “sibboleth” and were killed on the spot.

Unfortunately, shibboleths have typically been used to identify members of a certain race so that they could be massacred. Nowadays, shibboleths are used in a more light-hearted manner. For example, New Zealanders and Australians mock each other on how each pronounce the words fish and chips. Because New Zealanders pronounce the “i” with a shorter sound, Australians tease that they say “fush and chups”. On the other hand, New Zealanders mock Australians on their long “i” sounds that make it sound as if they are saying “feesh and cheeps”.