It’s always nice to discover that we’re more intelligent than we give ourselves credit for, isn’t it? And amongst those many unknown knowns that you have mastered without realising it, is the unique ability to rank adjectives in a specific order when describing a noun. I’m guessing that you’ve never really thought about it. But any native speaker of English knows that collocations like ‘a cup of good strong black coffee’ sound right, whereas ‘a cup of black strong good coffee’ definitely sounds wrong.
Hierarchy of adjectives
The rule that governs the hierarchy of adjectives goes like this: general opinion, specific opinion, size, shape, age, colour, origin, material, purpose. And that is why it’s ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and not ‘My Greek Fat Big Wedding’, and also why it’s ‘an amazing delicate little old Chinese porcelain tea-cup and saucer’ and not ‘a porcelain amazing Chinese little delicate old tea-cup and saucer’. Apart from the fact that you’d be unlikely to use that many adjectives to modify your drinking receptacle, the second version does sound quite insane! And now you know why.
The Big Bad Wolf
But, like virtually anything in English, there are exceptions. Thanks to Mark Forsyth, whose fascinating book, ‘The Elements of Eloquence’ I am currently reading, we now know why ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ dutifully follows the rules (as indeed she should) and the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ does not. If he did, he’d be the ‘Bad Big Wolf’ and that just doesn’t resonate, does it? Well, you’re probably thinking, ‘That anarchic wolf would do that wouldn’t he, it’s in his nature!’. But you’d be wrong. There’s another rule at play here and that’s the law of ‘ablaut reduplication’. We are all expert ablaut reduplicators, it seems, without feeling a thing. Have you ever dally-dillied on your way to play pong-ping in your flop-flips? No? I didn’t think so. What about listening to some hop-hip music while you have a chat-chit with your friends on a saw-see and eat a Kat-Kit? Get the picture?
Reduplication just means repetition. Simple repetition would include expressions like ‘bye-bye’, ‘night-night’, ‘chop-chop’ and ‘goody-goody’. Ablaut reduplication is when we change a vowel sound to create two versions of a word. Thus, we get ‘flim flam’, ‘tick tock’ etc. The order is always ‘I, A, O’ or for those phoneticians on-board, /ɪ/, /æ/, /ɒ/. Why? The theory seems to be that we are working from a relatively high tongue position to a lower one, which is nearer to a ‘natural’ position. Whatever the theory, it seems to work.
The ‘unknown-known’, or tacit knowledge, is the fourth quartile of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous analysis (and is in fact the one he didn’t mention). We have an unconscious understanding of the principles which govern the correct usage of our mother tongue, but we are completely unaware of them most of the time. That’s unless you become a teacher of EFL, but that’s another story!