Tag Archives: ablaut


Well, maybe it’s time I snuck in another pocket screed. Today’s will be “why ‘that’s not a word’ is a senseless assertion.” And maybe if I snuck in a bit of linguistic terminology as well… it’s ablaut time.

Let’s start with that ablaut thingy. What is ablaut? It’s a term (pronounced like “ab lout”) linguistics has taken from German to refer to what’s happening in word sets such as shrink, shrank, shrunken, or sing, sang, sung, or drive and drove, or any other set of words where an inflectional change causes the main vowel to move back in the mouth – in particular “strong” verbs.

Now, the thing about “strong” verbs is that, supposedly, they’re not making new ones. New verbs have to get the -ed past tense and past participle endings, supposedly. It would be sloppy and irregular and so on if some verb that didn’t have the “strong” blue blood in its veins were to take on the airs of ablaut.

The problem being that people, goshdarnit, don’t seem to approach language in a purely schematic, consistent way. Things are often done by analogy. And some things begin as “mistakes” but take root. There are quite a lot of fully accepted words and expressions now in use that have come about through “mistakes,” reanalysis, et cetera. And of course there are some that are still resisted vigorously in spite of being in common use for more than a century. One such is snuck.

It’s quite a sensible ablaut alternation, isn’t it? Sneak–snuck, as self-evident as, say, dive–dove. Alas, it was not always thus; the original (and still used, especially outside of North America) past tense of sneak was sneaked. Somehow snuck just snuck in there (like dove – the same people who oppose snuck oppose dove as the past of dive, for the same reason: it’s not an original strong verb).

It’s not as though the ablaut words we have have all kept their original vowels from the beginning, either. Drove would then be drave, for instance. But snuck is a pure interloper! It’s like having one of those people trying to get into your country club. They’re just not our sort. They don’t belong, you see. Why, snuck is not a word!

Well, yes it is. First of all, a word is any unitary lexical item that is used with proper effect to communicate a particular sense. In other words, if I say it as a word, and you understand it as a word, it’s a word for us. And if it’s in general circulation in a given language and used by many people, and those speakers of that language who hear it generally understand it, it’s a word in that language. Doesn’t matter if it’s not in your dictionary; dictionaries are like field guides, not legislation. Birdwatchers don’t say “That can’t be a bird; it’s not in my book,” they say “My book is missing that one.” That’s how it is with dictionaries too. And if you’re arguing against something being a word, it’s surely because you’ve heard it used as a word (otherwise why bother arguing?), so you’re already wrong from the start.

And anyway, snuck is in the dictionary. So there. It’s been in use in American English since at least the late 1800s, and it’s made its way into all sorts of dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sure, it’s comparatively informal. But the verb sneak isn’t exactly high-flown. And there’s use for informal words. Especially ones that have a suitable mouthfeel and sound, like snuck does. Let’s face it: sneaking is a generally negatively toned act, or at least a rascally one. It’s something done in such a way as to evade detection. There is a certain underhandedness and lack of dignity to it. Under what circumstance could you even think of saying “The Pope snuck into the room”? (Or “The Pope sneaked into the room”?)

So we have a word that has the nose-reminiscent /sn/, which also shows up in words like snip, snicker, snake, and sneer, and then we get that “uck”, which can be a very down-to-earth, informal kind of sound in our language: it might be good luck or a big truck or it might be getting stuck trying to buy a duck (yuck), or it might be any of a variety of other more or less louche words ending with the same rhyme.

This is not to say that sneaked lacks any such tones – it has the same onset, and rhymes with leaked and peeked and tweaked and such like – but it’s a higher, thinner sound (I have the sense that snuck is more appropriate to going under a table and sneaked to going in through a narrow gap), and it has a more complex ending, /kt/ rather than /k/.

So why not have a choice? It’s hardly the first time we’ve had two words for something, and just aesthetic and similar connotative matters to distinguish between them. After all, snuck is a word too.


Well, who’d have thunk it? It’s ablaut time! A what? No, it’s not “a blot,” though those new to this word might see it thus at first. There is neither blot nor blat in it. It is not, for those in music, a blah ut either. In fact, toss away all those loud or messy bl- words. You can even forget about blue, although the German word for “blue” – blau – appears in the heart of this word. But at least German is germane: this word comes from modern German, ab meaning “off” or “from”and laut meaning “sound,” and the syllables split betwixt b and l. And that laut is not a lot, not phonetically anyway – think loud (or lout). Now, does that remind you of another word? Um, let me think… Yes, umlaut. You will probably think first of two dots, like snake eyes or headlights or fang marks on top of a vowel (or perhaps puncture marks from a Spinal Tap), but umlaut is first of all what those marks are there to signify: a fronting of a vowel under the influence of a nearby vowel. So is ablaut the opposite? Well, it doesn’t have a diacritic, and it doesn’t involve the influence of another vowel, and in Germanic languages it does tend to move towards the back; that great philologist Dr. Seuss gave us a prime example: “Stink. Stank. Stunk.” But actually it simply means a change in vowel to signify a change in inflection – in English, we use it in some verbs to indicate a shift from present to past to past participle, but other languages use other shifts for other changes. It’s no longer “regular” in English, and so we would not expect it to get new use, but it still occasionally does, sometimes to the dismay of those who see language more as a weapon than as a toy: bring > brung and dive > dove are examples that get up some people’s noses. They see them as a blot on the language – indeed, who’d have thunk it?