Reduplication in Austronesian languages

by on July 27, 2018

Consider the following couple of English sentences:

A hush fell over the crowd.

You do understand that this matter is hush hush, right?

We may say that the two sentences differ in the number of times the word hush occurs, twice in sequence in (b) and once in (a). We may also say that while in (a), ‘hush’ functions as a noun (as would ‘shadow’ and ‘silence’ in the same sentence), in (b), ‘hush hush’ is an adjective (replaceable with other adjectives like ‘confidential’ and ‘true’). In seeing the difference between ‘hush’ and ‘hush hush’ as described, one has made headway into a linguistic concept called reduplication. By no means restricted to English, reduplication is common in Austronesian languages. In this article, we will explore how some Austronesian language speakers use reduplication.

Reduplication happens when a word or a part of is repeated for a grammatical function (Kołłątaj 2016, p. 238). This function could be to signal a change in word class, like in the case of ‘hush hush’ (adjective) from ‘hush’ (noun). It could also be to signal the plural or the collective, the continuity and futurity of actions/states, their intensity or their reciprocity. If the word is not repeated in whole, the bits repeated are often the word’s sounds, either a single sound or a series. This makes it necessary to talk on occasion about ‘consonants’ (C) and ‘vowels’ (V) when we talk about reduplication. Aside from this teeny weeny bit of technical jargon, the rest of this article should be a rather easy ride into the world of linguistic repetition, so enjoy!

Repeating where there are many

For Austronesian languages within Southeast Asia, perhaps the type of reduplication easiest to recognise and apply is that of signalling ‘many’ of something. This ‘many’ may refer to the simple plural (or plurality). It may also refer to a collection of something (or collectivity).

Reduplication to indicate the simple plural is found in Bahasa Melayu (commonly known as ‘Malay’), spoken in, amongst other places, Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, and Labuan. Malay is reported to be used by over 16 million people as a first language (L1) and 3 million as a second language (L2) (Simons & Fennig 2018b). In Malay, where a user knows there is more than one of an object, but does not know or does not wish to specify exactly how many, the whole form of the noun may simply be repeated twice to signal the plural. Where there is more than one ‘cat’, called kuching in Malay, you would not be wrong to say kuching kuching, even if you do not know the Malay word for ‘two’ (dua), ‘ten’ (sepuluh), or any other number. Other examples in Malay of full reduplication, where a whole word gets repeated, may be found in Yuko (2017, p. 68), who lists such plural forms as orang-orang (‘persons’), rumah-rumah (‘houses’), and fikiran-fikiran (‘thoughts’).

Reduplication to indicate ‘many’ occurs also in Amis, an Austronesian language found in Taiwan. Noted to be one of few surviving languages in the Formosan branch of the Austronesian family, Amis is reported to have 138,000 speakers (Simons & Fennig, 2018a).

As in Malay, examples of reduplication in Amis to indicate ‘many’ may involve repetition of the whole word. The ‘many’ indicated in full reduplications in Amis indicates a collection of something. For example, the word posi (for singular ‘cat’) in Amis, when it undergoes full reduplication, leads to posi-posi, which translates as ‘those cats’ (Zeitoun & Wu 2006, p. 103). The notion of ‘those’ is notable. Since posi-posi means not only many cats, but a particular grouping of many cats—‘those cats’ as opposed to ‘these cats’—, we may observe here the collective function of full reduplication in Amis.

Repeating where there is continuity

Reduplication is not restricted to the expression of ‘many’. It may also be used to express continuity. Returning to Amis, full reduplication expresses an event’s continuity. An example is temok-temok (Zeitoun & Wu 2006, p. 103), which means a continuous state of having a palpitation, where a single occurrence of temok means simply to ‘have a palpitation’. In Amis, we find continuity signaled as well by a type of partial reduplication that involves the repetition of a consonant paired with an additional vowel /a/. Zeitoun and Wu (2006, p. 103) give the example of mi-ra-rosaros, a reduplication of mi-rosaros, where mi-ra-rosaros means ‘keep sawing’, and the base form mi-rosaros means ‘saw’.[1] Here, the first consonant /r/ from rosaros is repeated with an additional vowel /a/ and added as /ra/ to the base form to produce mi-ra-rosaros.

While repetitions of whole words and individual consonants express continuity in some languages, continuity may be expressed with yet a third type of reduplication—a partial reduplication that involves the repetition of a word’s consonant-vowel (CV) sequence. This is found in Sasiyat, which like Amis, is classified under the Formosan branch of the Austronesian family of languages. Spoken in various locations in Taiwan, Saisiyat is classified as a threatened language with a reported number of 4,750 speakers (Simons & Fennig 2018c). Repetition of the first CV sequence of a verb in Saisiyat shows that the action expressed in the verb is not one-off, but continuous. Zeitoun and Wu (2006, p. 117) documents, for example, a verb hiyop, which means ‘to blow’ in Saisiyat, having its first CV sequence /hi/ repeated to produce the form, hi-hiyop, which means ‘keep on blowing’.

Repeating for futurity, reciprocity, and intensity

Repetition of the first CV sequence also occurs in Tagalog—a language of the Philippines reported in the Philippine Statistics Authority’s 2000 Census of Population and Housing to be generally spoken by 5,368,187 households (Albert 2013, Table 1). Bauer (2003, p. 339) gives examples from Tagalog of susulat (‘will write’), babasa (‘will read’) and ɁiɁibig[2] (‘will love’). In these examples, the first CV pairs of each of the verbs sulat, basa and Ɂibig are repeated to say that the actions expressed by these verbs will occur in the future.

In Maori, a language native to the first settlers of New Zealand and spoken in contemporary times by possibly “as many as 160,000 people” (Harlow 2012, p. 2), we find initial CV repetition in reduplications as well. Applied to verbs, these repetition patterns may express reciprocity or, in brief, the mutual performance of an action expressed by a verb.[3] Examples documented in Harlow (2012, p. 128) include the repetition of CV sequence /pi/ from piri (‘to cling’) to produce pipiri (‘cling together’), and the repetition of CV sequence /pa/ from patu (‘to strike’) to produce papatu [‘to strike (weapons) together’]. When applied to adjectives, initial CV reduplications in Maori may express both increased and reduced intensity. In increased intensity, the repetition of CV sequence /pa/ from pai (‘good’) to produce papai (‘very good’) is documented in Harlow (2012, p. 128), and for reduced intensity, an example noted in the same work is the repetition of CV sequence /pa/ from pango (‘black’) to produce papango (‘blackish’).

Reduplication is a rather common word formation tool in several languages, and as mentioned above, there are several ways of reduplicating. The focus here is on examples from Austronesian languages at large because this language family happens to be a special feature of the issue. Even then, given the huge size of the Austronesian language family, there are necessarily constraints as to how much may be said about reduplication within the span of a short article.

Nonetheless, it is hoped that the examples highlighted are sufficient in showing first, that reduplication may be full (involving the whole word) or partial (involving bits of a word such as its initial sounds), and second, that reduplication is used for a wide range of grammatical functions. In an even larger sample of languages perhaps, where we have the opportunity to observe yet more grammatical functions of reduplication, we might even begin to turn our attention from asking what reduplication does in languages to what it does not do!


[1] It remains unclear from the source of this example whether the base form ‘mi-rosaros’ (‘saw’) is a verb (as in ‘to saw’) or a noun (as in ‘a saw’).

[2] In standard orthography, the word ɁiɁibig is written or spelt out as iibig.

[3] Reciprocity in linguistics refers to a mutual process that occurs between two (in)animate entities, so that it is hard to say which of the two entities is the agent (or do-er) of the process, and which, the patient (the one being done to). Reciprocity is often expressed with the term ‘each other’ in English, so that when we say ‘John and Mary hugged each other’, we cannot say definitively that John is doing the hugging and Mary is being hugged or that Mary is doing the hugging and John is being hugged.

Cat icons in header image made by Freepik from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY


Albert, J. R. G. (2013). Many Voices, One Nation: The Philippine Languages and Dialects in Figures. Available at: (accessed 5 April 2018).

Bauer, L. (2003). Introducing linguistic morphology (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Harlow, R. (2012). Māori: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kołłątaj, A. (2016). Reduplication in English — typology, correlation with slang and metaphorisation. Polilog. Studia Neofilologiczne, 6, pp. 237–248.

Simons, G. F., & Fennig, C. D. (eds). (2018a). Amis. In Ethnologue: Languages of the world, twenty-first edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Available at: (accessed 5 April 2018).

—. F., & Fennig, C. D. (eds). (2018b). Malay. In Ethnologue: Languages of the world, twenty-first edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Available at: (accessed 5 April 2018).

—. F., & Fennig, C. D. (eds). (2018c). Saisiyat. In Ethnologue: Languages of the world, twenty-first edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Available at: (accessed 5 April 2018).

Yuko, F. (2017). Reduplication in Standard Malay and Japanese. Journal of Modern Languages, 13(1), pp. 65–92.

Zeitoun, E., & Wu, C.-H. (2006). Reduplication in Formosan languages. In Chang, Yung-li, Huang, Lillian M., & Ho, Dah-an (eds), Streams converging into an Ocean: Festschrift in honor of Prof. Paul Jen-kuei Li on his 70th birthday, pp. 97–142. Language and Linguistics Monograph Series W-5. Taipei: Academia Sinica.

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