Brazilian Reduplication.

The Economist (no author given) reports (archived) on an interesting aspect of Brazilian Portuguese:

The song, a hit at Brazil’s carnival in 2014, starts like any other. A man wonders whether a woman will still love him after he loses his job, his house and his car. But then the chorus gets weird. If the woman stays, the singer belts over a thumping drum, it is because she likes his “lepo lepo”. Most Brazilians had no idea what “lepo lepo” meant.

A talk-show host put the question to strangers on the street. “I use it a lot, but I don’t know,” one man admitted. Some people guessed that it was slang for penis (it is actually slang for sex or sexual prowess). It turned out that the phrase was unfamiliar outside Bahia, the north-eastern state where Psirico, the band, is from.

No matter. Its construction, a loose example of what linguists call reduplication, a way of forming words in which an existing word or part of a word gets repeated, is common in Brazilian Portuguese. “We play around with words, and end up making new ones,” says Márcio Victor, the lead singer of Psirico.

In most cases, the third-person singular form of a verb is repeated to form a noun with a related meaning. For example, “empurra” (she pushes) becomes “empurra-empurra” (jostling crowd, or moshpit). “Lambe” (he licks) becomes “lambe-lambe” (poster). In other cases, the last syllable of a noun is replicated to add intensity. “Choro” (crying) becomes “chororô” (cry-fest or a crybaby). […]

The origins of reduplication in Portuguese are hard to pin down. According to a paper in 2019 by Antonia Vieira, a Brazilian linguist, the first Portuguese dictionary, compiled by a priest in the 1700s, contains 44 examples. Many, however, are what Gabriel Araújo of the University of São Paulo calls “pseudo-reduplication”, in which the base that is doubled is an onomatopoeic sound rather than a word with meaning, resulting in words like “pi-pi”, birdcall, and “zum-zum”, the buzz of mosquitoes.

In Brazilian Portuguese, reduplication appears to have produced more, and more varied, words than its European counterpart. In addition to the onomatopoeia of everyday speech, Brazilians use reduplication when talking to children (“au-au” has become a synonym for dog) and as pet names for relatives (“vovó” is a nickname for “avó”, or grandmother; “titi” for “tio”, or uncle). Some examples are thought to be the result of exposure to hundreds of indigenous and African languages, in which reduplication is common.

The urge to reduplicate may reflect a culture that is younger, less conservative and more open to experimentation, some surmise. Reduplication came in handy to name new things in a new world. For example, in the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, residents attached a rubber tyre to a wooden barrel to bring water from Guanabara bay and called it a “rola-rola”, from the verb “to roll”. “Brazilians use language to make a hard life more fun,” says Mr Araújo.

Reduplication, a mostly oral tradition, was hardly studied in Brazil until the turn of the 21st century. But in the past two decades it has started to get more attention. It helps that new reduplicated words appear all the time, while old ones change their meaning or gain currency.

There’s more, including a graph and an audio file, at the link. Thanks, mapache!


  1. cuchuflete says

    Another: from the noun puxar (puˈʃar), to pull, we get puxa-puxa. That’s Portuguese for toffee.

    See how it’s made. The pulling begins at about 4:30.

  2. i have a loose sense that this is something that also happens elsewhere in the afrodiasporic americas – which would make sense, given the parallel african and indigenous influences (assuming that it makes any sense to talk about wildly different indigenous languages from the amazon to the caribbean to what’s now the southern u.s. as sharing that feature). “titi” for “tía” is pretty usual in the caribbean spanishes i hear, and i think there’s a fair amount of these kinds of reduplication in caribbean englishes on the various creole continua (continuums? i don’t really latin, or even dog-latin, and will always pick the more esoteric possibility).

  3. John Emerson says

    In Micronesian (Trukese / Chuukese) pidgin (whatever it’s proper name is) “push-push” is the familiar word for sex.

    Reduplicatives of a variety of types )”true” and otherwise) are a important on Chinese almost as far back as the written record goes. They’re impressionistic but not slang or informal.

  4. In my friend’s school there was a mysterious swear word ye-ye [je-je]. No one knew what does it mean, but it was bad. Some day a boy approached him and asked: “do you know, how you were born?’ [lit: “how you appeared”) “?” “your mom and dad did ye-ye!”.

    My friend did not know what it means, but punched his face anyway. А чё он?

  5. David Marjanović says

    assuming that it makes any sense to talk about wildly different indigenous languages from the amazon to the caribbean to what’s now the southern u.s. as sharing that feature

    Everyone except Standard Average European seems to share it.

    And Brazilian Portuguese is known to have picked up a few local features, though I have no idea what they are.

  6. For the curious—since I could not find a link in the article—there are several versions of Psirico’s song available on YouTube.

    I wonder what lepo lepo is immediately based on. Just onomatopoeia or sound-symbolism? Catalan llepar ‘to lick; brush up against, touch lightly’ and Occitan lepar ‘to lick’ show a root of appropriate shape and meaning, but cognates of the shape lep- are absent from Portuguese and Spanish as far I could discover from a quick search. This root is doubtless ultimately onomatopoeic. (Further afield, there are Portuguese lapo ‘slash (with a knife), scar from a whip; fall (part of a bullwhip); piece of food’ and Spanish lapo ‘slap (in the face); lash (blow from a whip); swig (of a drink); gob of spittle’.)

    Zum zum, here the sound of the wind, immediately recalled the memory of forró nights at Brazilian clubs on Revere Beach in Boston, around 2004–2005.

  7. cuchuflete says

    Lepo is not a Portuguese word.

    Here is a commentary about it as, according to the author, a barbaric neologism.

    O “lepo lepo” se autoexplica. Trata-se de uma qualidade erótica intrínseca a seu detentor. Em inglês, seria traduzido como “mojo”, também ele um neologismo. O duplo sentido da letra do reggae reforça o aspecto de símbolo fálico da palavra reduplicada. O lepo lepo pode ser descrito como aquilo que o pé-rapado hetererossexual sem carro e sem dinheiro possui e que agrada a todas as suas parceiras de acasalamento.

    DeepL renders it in English thusly:

    The “lepo lepo” explains itself. It is an erotic quality intrinsic to its holder. In English, it would be translated as “mojo”, also a neologism. The double meaning of the reggae lyrics reinforces the phallic symbol aspect of the reduplicated word. The lepo lepo can be described as that which the hetererosexual scoundrel without a car and without money possesses and which pleases all his mating partners.


    My guess, based on it being nordestinho, is that lepo is derived from either an indigenous or African word.

  8. WP: Motorcycle taxi.
    “Motorcycle taxis in the Philippines usually have sidecars, or seats extended sideways, often by use of a T-shaped crossbeam. The latter type of taxi is known as habal-habal, or a skylab,[11] owing to its crude resemblance to the Skylab space station, which orbited the Earth in the 1970s.[12]”
    Wiktionary: habal-habal .”Borrowed from Cebuano habalhabal, of uncertain origin.”
    Wiktionary: habalhabal. “Reduplication of habal (“to copulate”), named after the seating arrangement reminiscent of the male animal mounting a female from the back. The Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) claims an alternative etymology from English Hubble, since variants of the vehicle crudely resembles the Hubble Space Telescope (cf. skylab, after the space station).[1]”

  9. Average European – French reduplicates and is quite similar to reflexes of IE reduplication in Classical languages. Tetendi could be French baby talk… or the first part of it anyway.

  10. There’s a famous-among-linguists paper (the salad-salad paper) that gives many examples of reduplication in colloquial English:

  11. Como “vem brigar com a minha aranha”, certo?

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Nel caso delle ripetizioni occasionali di un nome, inoltre, il valore sembra essere più propriamente quello di una focalizzazione della pienezza di significato del termine ripetuto: per es., un caffè caffè («un caffè vero, non un surrogato»); un maglione di lana lana («di pura lana, non sintetico»); abito a Roma Roma («a Roma città e non nel circondario»).'Italiano)/
    So for Italian nouns X the repetition XX means “really X, not just peripherally X or made to look like X.” For adjectives or adverbs the repetition is much more common in speech and writing and I think more for emphasis or to give a fable, magical or childish touch. The Treccani does not give examples of noun XX without the above meaning, my impression is that these exist but are rare and have an exotic flavour.

  13. So for Italian nouns X the repetition XX means “really X, not just peripherally X or made to look like X.

    And in Spanish, as famously in this line in Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988), delivered by the fabulous Rossy de Palma:

    Yo lo que quiero es una casa. Y esto no es una casa casa.

  14. Same as in English.

  15. David Marjanović says

    French reduplicates

    French reduplicates the first syllable in a long list of baby words. Other than that, it uses repetition for emphasis: where English or German would draw out “lots and lots of”, French quintuplicates to y a pleinpleinpleinpleinplein, the first four said in the time usually taken for one syllable.

    Y esto no es una casa casa.

    This sort of emphasis maps precisely to AmEng this isn’t a house-house, AFAIK – something absent from French, German, Russian or, AFAIK, BrEng. Interesting that Italian and Spanish have it.

  16. @JE: Micronesian instances of push-push for ‘have sex’ are almost certainly from New Guinea Tok Pisin puspus, puspusim (with transitive suffix) ‘fuck’.

    English has a lot of almost reduplicates: jibber-jabber, higgledy-piggledy, humpty-dumpty, mumbo-jumbo, claptrap, etc.

  17. @DM, I do not know if it is a fixed list or a productive scheme in baby French (I assume, the latter, but I do not know French that well), but in Russian this scheme does not seem to work… or maybe I just can’t remmeber good examples. I mean, something like faire mumuse or (taking the examples from fr.wiktionary’s explanations like “De père par le redoublement hypocoristique de la syllabe initiale qui sert pour former des mots dont le caractère péjoratif est euphémisé ; voyez bébête, cucul, guéguerre, etc.“) pépère, bébête, cucul, guéguerre, chienchien, doudou, dodo.. Even dodo, because to form it one needs to extract the syllable from dormir, or chienchien.

    Similarly, chororô in LH’s post and other examples where a syllable is repeated on the other side of a word — I think I noticed such things in African langauges — does not work in Russian. It is possible that popularity of such methods depends on the grammar of a langauge, and the former scheme actually recembles tetendi (gignosko is less French).


    French is also a source of many pet names that were popular in Russia when French was popular.
    And there are fairly common words from coucou to bonbon (again, taking words that entered Russian. By now bonbon and bonbonnière (бонбоньерка) are forgotten).

    Based on borrowings and neutrality I do have an impression that I in French it is more common, but it is a subjective impression.

  18. British comedian on going “out out”:

  19. “au-au” has become a synonym for dog

    German baby-talk has “wauwau” for “dog” which parents use with little children because it alleged sounds like a dog barking and so is easier to learn than plain and simple “Hund”. I already found this silly as a young child; for one thing, real barking sounds nothing like “wauwau”.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal uses reduplication of whole words to make distributives, e.g. dabisir dabisir “day [by] day”, atan’ tan’ “by threes”, and to intensify manner adverbs: M wʋm Kʋsaal bi’el bi’el “I understand Kusaal a tiny bit.”

    And ideophones (which can do pretty much anything, phonologically) are quite often reduplicated in whole or in part: O wa’am tɔlilili “He’s very tall.”

    A lot of nominals have reduplication-prefixes, as with tita’ar “big”, pipirig “desert”, but these prefixes don’t have any identifiable meaning. However, I just discovered that in Konni, uncompounded agent nouns do it regularly: mɪmɪɪrʊ “builder”, from mɪɪ “build”, beside Kusaal mɛɛd “builder” from “build.” There are a few cases like this in Kusaal too, but it’s not a regular thing like it is in Konni.

    Chadic languages often reduplicate verb stems to express aspects, usually imperfective; I suppose (like the distributive sense of noun+noun) this is iconic.

    Hausa has some plurals which are reduplicated forms, like shirye-shirye “programs” (TV, radio etc.)

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    Animal noises are often cited in reduplicated form in Danish as well, and some people do use that to name the animals to little children. Forms like øfgris, muhko, vovhund, rapand may persist longer (the latter items longer) and even be used as names in children’s books or songs, or as jocular forms in adult use.

  22. @DE, this tiny bit is interesting. In Russian чуть-чуть. But why exactly doubling a tiny bit (if bi’el is a bit) makes it tinier rater than larger cross-linguistically? I mean, in this case speakers, I think should understand why they are doing it…

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it just intensifies the meaning of the adverb; it’s the adverb itself that means “tiny”, not the reduplication. The unreduplicated form of bi’el bi’el is bi’ela: M wʋm Nasaal bi’ela “I understand English a little.”

    Ghanaian English actually does the same: “I hear Twi small-small.”

  24. @DE, yes, but Russian чуть-чуть is a fixed phrase. When we repeat “white” (белый-белый!) we understand that we named whiteness twice, when we say чуть-чуть we just say “a bit”. There is also чуть, it is somewhat less common.
    It is not even exactly an adverb, because it is a little/bit.

    Your example (and also a Russian joke that came to my mind) made me think that this repetition sticks particularly well to diminution.

    The joke:
    “Comrade colonel, do crocodiles fly?” “No, Petrov, they do not” “But the comrade general said they do…” “well… they do, but низенько-низенько…”.

    низ “lower part”,
    -еньк- diminutive,
    -о “-ly”.
    “Very low”. Russian nízen’ko, Ukrainian nizén’ko, in the joke the comrade colonel says it in Ukrainian, for fun.


    Yoruba seems to form agent nouns from verbs this way (including statives and even phrases):

    lọ́balọ́ba “kings”, plural – Reduplication of ní ọba (“to be king”?)
    panápaná “fireman” – Reduplication of paná (“to extinguish a fire”)

  26. French does have at least one good parallel to formations like puxa-puxa: a coupe-coupe is a cutter. (In my experience a board-mounted knife for slicing sea urchins in half, but I believe the application is wider.)

  27. Actually I hoped that local Africans will say something about distribution of these two features (reduplicating the ultimate syllable, reduplicating to form a name of an item: rola-rola above) in Africa.

    They both are very un-Russian and un-SAE, and for both I know African examples. Also Brazil (particularly Bahia) make one think of an African source. It is not that there not many enough local languages, it is not that Lebanese Brazilian community is not much larger than Lebanese Lebanese community (Lebanon being the Ireland of East Mediterranean in this respect), it is not that Russian sects did not emigrate there too. Population of Brazil and Argentine increaced 20-fold since 1880, , to an extent because of immigration.
    But naturally one first thinks about Africa.

    coupe-coupe – I thought about it too …. But I do not know if was influenced by another lnagauge or foreigner talk.

  28. BTW, one of the best-known Brazilian tunes is Tico-tico no fubá. As sung by Ademilde Fonseca in 1942, the song begins:

    Um tico-tico só,
    Um tico-tico lá,
    Já está comendo todo, todo meu fubá…

    (Not sure if it’s “um” or “o” in the first two lines – I hear “o” but most sources have “um.”)

    You may want to Google “Por uma abordagem compreensiva da reduplicação no Português do Brasil” by Carlos Alexandre Gonçalves. It’s a scholarly article suggesting, as the title says, a comprehensive classification of the subject. Also, see “A lição do lepo-lepo” by Jean Lauand, a note in a popular monthly. A long quote:

    “Lepo-lepo”, como “bunga-bunga” (ou a “conga-conga” da Gretchen), evocam o caráter de descontrole, de pega-pega, de treme-treme, de rala-rala que a repetição em alguns casos indica:

    “A manifestação estava pacífica, mas quando chegou na avenida começou o quebra-quebra”;

    “A reunião ia bem, mas quando chegou o pessoal do sindicato, aí virou oba-oba”;

    “O dia da mudança foi um lufa-lufa”;
    “A saída do estádio foi comportada até começar o empurra-empurra”;
    “Em época de visita do MEC, a secretaria da faculdade é aquele vuco-vuco”;
    “Tá rolando um zum-zum-zum, um diz-que-diz-que de que vai haver cortes nos salários”.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Although Kusaal reduplication-prefixes seem to have no identifiable individual meaning, certain semantic fields of nouns are particularly likely to show them: specifically insects and small nasty animals e.g. silinsiung “spider”, vulinvuunl “mason wasp”, sinsaa “(a kind of) tiny ant”, bʋmbarig “ant”, pisimpiʋŋ “butterfly”, nɛsinnɛog “centipede”, dindɛog “chameleon”, dunduug “cobra.” In other words, “creepy-crawlies.”

    (Presumably, ancient African Marxism explains kpikpin “merchant.” The African origins of Marxism have been too little appreciated. Black Athena, nothing.)

  30. Гиркин (19:28). “Публично извинюсь, если российские войска через три дня после начала операции возьмут Киев. Буду рад, если ошибусь. Если рассчитываете как в Чечне – сикось накось – не выйдет. Чечня маленькая. Не рассчитывайте на легкую прогулку”.

  31. David Eddyshaw says


    this tiny bit is interesting

    Reduplication of adjectives in Hausa does actually work as a downtoner, regardless of the meaning of the adjective itself, e.g. baƙi “black”, baƙi-baƙi “blackish”; dogo “tall”, dogo-dogo “a bit tall.”

    There’s nothing like that in Kusaal, which instead does downtoning of adjectives by suppressing the usual apocope of short final vowels: wiug “red”, wiugʋ “reddish” (a construction I have no explanation for.)

  32. @DE I browsed Jaggar and Newman… Hausa is creative (from your examples it seems, Kusaal too). Many forms from reduplication-reduplication to rantsetseniya “competing in swearing” rungumemeniya “mutual embracing” (Newman 2000 p. 336) with suffuxes with placeholder consonants that take the value of the stem consonant whether it is reduplication or assimilation or what (-eeCee-niyaa).

    It is a part of grammar and somewhat recembles IE wiht cycle/chakra and gignosko where it interacts with ablaut and is different from Russian where it is used in domains like baby talk, onomatopoeias or texts about South-East Asia and Africa (tuk-tuk and boda-boda), isolated from grammar grammar and usually in the pure form.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, Hausa does a great deal of word-internal partial reduplication, notably in noun plurals and verb frequentatives and pluratives. All very iconic, again.

    Partial reduplication in Kusaal is pretty much limited to (apparently meaningless) nominal prefixes, and doesn’t play any systematic role in morphology; it does (a little) in Konni, but that is pretty exceptional in Oti-Volta.

  34. The weird thing is that there definitely were Hausas in Brazil….

  35. David Marjanović says

    a construction I have no explanation for

    I would guess it’s similar to why the /n/ in seven is preserved instead of being lost in pre-Germanic times: first, mark “-ish” by adding a consonant; then, drop final vowels; then, drop that consonant again.

    была бы настоящая война война

    Oh, interesting.

    Also interesting: VKontakte speaks German to me – it transcribes all the usernames according to German usage.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    similar to why the /n/ in seven is preserved

    Could be; suppression of final-vowel apocope in Kusaal is generally due to following enclitics, which have themselves disappeared – because of apocope. The particular pattern of final vowel quality in these cases is different from the sort which is caused by question particles or the negative enclitic, and is the same as that seen in many quantifiers (including the number words) and in loanwords from WOV languages in which citation forms don’t show apocope.

    The weird thing is that there definitely were Hausas in Brazil….

    There are Hausa everywhere. They’re like Hungarians. (Their language is easier, though.)

    [I actually knew some Hausa-speaking Hungarians in Nigeria.]

  37. Kate Bunting says

    Ulr wrote: German baby-talk has “wauwau” for “dog”.

    The similar ‘bow-wow’ is well-established in English –

  38. I wanted to check if reduplication is common in Juba Arabic. I did not find much, except

    round (raund) :adj: …. circular madauwar
    round (raund) :adj: …. spherical golong-golong

    and repetition of verbs to express continous/repetetive actions. Now I accidentally came across Catherine Miller, Reduplication in Arabic-based language contact (pdf), Avram, Pseudo-reduplication, reduplication and repetition: The case of Arabic-lexified pidgins and creoles (link). Miller writes: ‘But the informants tend to present reduplication as a typical Juba Arabic feature which reflects the “African nature ” of Juba Arabic compared to standard Sudanese Arabic dialect (i.e. Khartoum dialect).‘, that is somewhat surprising. Europeans maybe associate reduplication with something African, and indeed it seems to be productive in West Africa (and in SE Asia). But Arabic has its own mechanisms of reduplication, while Juba Arabic does not seem particularly reduplicating to me. Maybe it just reduplicates differently….

    golong-golong / gulung-gulung is Malay. What is it doing in Juba?

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    it seems to be productive in West Africa

    Depends … it’s much more evident in Hausa, for example, than Kusaal, in which reduplication is less productive overall than it was in classical Greek. Kusaal expressions like anaas naas aren’t really any different from the corresponding English “four by four”: they just don’t need an equivalent of “by.”
    And ideophones are … ideophones.

    I get the impression that in general it’s more of a Chadic than a Niger-Congo thing, but that could easily be an illusion based on generalising from the few languages I happen to know much about.

  40. Yes, I should have chosen a more careful formulation. I simply know too little about West Africa. I have seen it in some languages and nothing more. BP reduplication can be: an unique story, a contact story (foreigner talk), Romance idea (cf. French), African idea or a borrowing from local languages. It also can be an areal thing, or language-specific thing. “African lnagauges”… I guess for Bahia it must be Yoruba especially, at lest for 19th century. Yoruba does seem to have it, but I do not know how productive it is.

  41. I recently ran into a very fancy term of Greek origin for full reduplication, and I lost the bit where I wrote it down. Dang. It was in the title of some thesis or dissertation on Biblical Hebrew.

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