Vo­cab

Friday - - Mind Games -

Hindi film English Vinglish is about an In­dian in New York who, up­set by taunts at her poor English, signs up to study the lan­guage. Vinglish is a redu­pli­ca­tion word, the v sound be­ing an In­dian fix­ture: for in­stance, the Hindi word for food, is khana; “Khana vana ho gaya?” is a col­lo­quial en­quiry ask­ing if one has eaten.

For most English-lan­guage speak­ers this redu­pli­ca­tion doesn’t be­gin with v, but with shm (or schm). The sec­ond dif­fer­ence is that the shm is added not as an ‘etcetera word’, as in Hindi, but to de­note cyn­i­cism or de­ri­sion. For in­stance: “Have you been to the sale yet?” “Sale sch­male! The prices were jacked up be­fore be­ing marked down!”

The prac­tice of copying a word and stick­ing a shm- on to it came to the US with Yid­dish speak­ers in the late 1800s, and by the 1930s this spread into gen­eral use. It’s a handy way of re­ject­ing or dis­miss­ing some­thing with­out sound­ing ag­gres­sive. The rules of shm redu­pli­ca­tion aren’t taught in school, yet we have a good feel for how it’s done: re­peat a word, putting a shm­be­fore the vowel sound in the first syl­la­ble (“syl­la­ble, shmyl­la­ble!”).

But there are some words that cause con­fu­sion about how the shmshould best be at­tached. A 2003 study by lin­guists An­drew Nevins and Bert Vaux called Me­talin­guis­tic, Sh­metalin­guis­tic: The Phonol­ogy of Shm-Redu­pli­ca­tion, found five types of words that leave peo­ple fum­bling to fig­ure out where the shm- should go. Here are those five pho­netic pit­falls of shm- redu­pli­ca­tion: 1. A word that be­gins with a vowel is per­fect for shm-redu­pli­ca­tion, and one that be­gins with a sin­gle con­so­nant shm sim­ply re­places it, as in ap­ple, shmap­ple or cat, shmat. But a two-con­so­nant be­gin­ning such as break­fast, gives pause for thought: do we re­place the b or the r? 2. Words be­gin­ning with U and W call for some lin­gual cal­lis­then­ics. Can you re­ally pro­nounce shyu­nion? 3. Some vol­un­teers on the study found a prob­lem in words that had ch in them, and chose to drop the h from shm: rich, smich. 4. Gen­er­ally, the shm- at­taches to a stressed syl­la­ble. Do we, or don’t we, move the word stress to the first syl­la­ble re­gard­less: ar­cade, shmar­cade or ar­cade, ar­sh­made? 5. Fi­nally, where shm self-ef­faces – when a word al­ready be­gins with schm: schmuck, sch­luck per­haps?

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