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I was looking up "seesaw" on Wiktionary , and I noticed all their examples of ablaut reduplication "such as teeter-totter, zigzag, flip-flop, ping pong, etc." have "ee" or "i" in the first word, replaced by "o" or "a" in the second word:

  • seesaw
  • teeter-totter
  • zigzag
  • flip-flop
  • ping pong
  • sing-song
  • kitty-cat

Is there a process by which this kind of reduplication that involves only a vowel change ensures that the first vowel is front/close and the second vowel is back/open?

  • Those examples are all ablaut reduplication. There are also rhyming and exact forms, among others. With the exception of schm, reduplication is generally fixed in form, and non-productive. – Cascabel Jan 28 at 13:59
  • I suspect that it is a more or less universal preference of human beings rather than something unique to English. I was told that ping pong derived from the Chinese píngpàngchù rather than the other way around. – BoldBen Jan 28 at 14:04
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    Related: crisscross, dillydally, riffraff, etc. – tchrist Jan 28 at 15:22
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    Yes. High vowels come before low in reduplicated freezes, and front before back, generally speaking. These are two of the principles from Cooper and Ross, which should probably be absorbed before drawing any conclusions. – John Lawler Jan 28 at 16:40
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    @Cascabel I think by adding the word "ablaut" you've made the question self-answering. – CJ Dennis Jan 28 at 22:08
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Since some time has passed without an answer, I thought I'd try with a partial one.

I don't know of any examples of ablaut reduplications in English where the first vowel is the backer/opener one.

You asked about a "process", but I think it's difficult to analyze because reduplication is not extremely productive in English. The words that show this pattern of vowel change have somewhat miscellaneous origins, which makes it difficult to describe them in terms of derivation from some single process.

  • Some OED entries suggest that in at least some cases, the back vowel is original and the front vowel created during the derivation: the entry for (k)nick-(k)nack says "Reduplication of knack n.2, with first element lightened as in crick-crack, etc."

  • In some cases, however, each part of the reduplication consists of a preexisting word-form: this seems to be the case with sing-song and kitty-cat.

There are alternative types of reduplication; as mentioned in the comments, there is rhyming reduplication with consonant alternation. "Schm-" reduplication is, unusually, somewhat productive; there are also fairly non-productive but notable patterns like h-C reduplication and C-w reduplication (I wrote an answer going into more detail about these here: Why is a rhyming word beginning with “h” put before another word to create a new term?)

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