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?