FOUR-LETTER WORDS.

No, not the kind you’re thinking of, but the much rarer kind with four identical letters (or, if one cheats a bit, a repetition of a two-letter combination, like chch) in a row. Mark Liberman at Language Log quotes Benjamin Monreal quoting George Starbuck‘s poem, “Verses to exhaust my stock of four-letter words”:

From the ocean floors, where the necrovores
Of the zoöoögenous mud
Fight for their share, to the Andes where
Bullllamas thunder and thud,

And even thence to the heavens, whence
Archchurchmen appear to receive
The shortwave stations of rival nations
Of angels: “Believe! Believe!”

They battle, they battle—poor put-upon cattle,
Each waging, reluctantly,
That punitive war on the disagreeor
Which falls to the disagreeee.

Comments

  1. “Disorder at the zoo” in Swedish is another one: zoooordning.

  2. look here (scroll down a bit), for some words that repeat a letter 5,6,7,8 and even 9 times.

  3. (oh sorry… no, those words don’t repeat the same letter in a row)

  4. A Dutch favourite is the sea duck, zeeeend. Some spoilsports advocate using a couple of tremas, but otherwise the word is perfectly legitimate.
    Another Swedish monstrosity, rahter twisted, is an eel of the creek of the village Råå, spelled in the oldfashioned way: Raaaaaaaal. (Modern: Råååål.) The geographical waterway name is real, though, in the form Råån. The name Rååån for it is contested, but found in a Wikipedia article, probably by some local patriot.

  5. Finnish is disqualified from the start because of the orthographical rule that insists on putting hyphens between similar vowels in different words.
    Estonian is not so encumbered, thus giving us the word for ice’s edge, jäääär, which is also what an Estonian band decided to call themselves.
    On a more theoretical front, in Estonian one can form the word töööööök, which means something like the sickness of the working night. It has three long vowels in three different words that it is a compound of.

  6. ‘the sickness of the working night’ !? Please, tell us more.

  7. David Marjanović says

    So much, then, for claims that Estonian has only three phonemic vowel lengths. Ha!

    which is also what an Estonian band decided to call themselves.

    GAH! If they sing the way their name sounds… ugh.

  8. The site to which cleek linked does actually have another page with quadruple letter words, including the aforementioned Estonian jäääärne and Dutch zeeëend.

  9. And people wonder why Russians tell “slow” jokes about Estonians…

  10. Lars Mathiesen says

    Raaaaaaaal — but AFAIK Swedish never did the aa for å thing. Danish doesn’t believe in doubled vowels*, but this is a foreign town so who knows how it would have fared before 1948. I carried on at length about this on another thread, but I didn’t include geographical names — Raaaaen for what Swedish spells Råån would at least be likely.
    _________________
    * Most of Swedish doesn’t either, but Scania has towns like Höör and indeed Råå. Not using them does make the spelling ambiguous for open syllables (and final ones in Danish), but the rest of us cope just fine.

  11. Thanks for reviving this thread so I could reäquaint myself with “zoöoögenous.”

  12. John Cowan says

    Danish doesn’t believe in doubled vowels

    Well now it doesn’t, but “Byens navn er Aabenraa, uden svenske boller paa.” Or do you exclude aa = å from your stricture?

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    Aa as a digraph doesn’t denote length, and hasn’t for most of the previous milennium. (Though the sound now spelled å is a regular development of /a:/, probably with exceptions I’m too tired to look up, and å started out as an aa digraph in ON manuscripts where it did denote /a;/). And before 1948, it was reckoned as a single vowel letter with its own position at the end of the alphabet — officially, and the way I learned it, but actually the 1883 dictionary I looked at treats it as two single letters when ordering headwords!

    This in contradistinction to the Scanian practice of doubling vowel letters for length.

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    However, as previously covered, Danish did use extra vowels for length back in the days of Kierkegaard and Andersen, but only where the context didn’t allow a doubled consonant to disambiguate: een, viis, Huus. There were some constraints that I’m not sure how they worked, but I’ve never seen ææ or øø used for length, probably for æsthetic reasons (and aa was /å/, of course). I tried to look for Æg/Ææg = ‘egg’ in Andersen, since it does have a long vowel, but it seems that the OCR at archive.org doesn’t know Fraktur from flyspecks.

    (Kierkegaard = ‘churchyard’ is now spelled kirkegård and pronounced with (short) /i/ in the first syllable, but in his day I think it did have /e/ — the i is to mark the palatalization before front vowels that was very prominent in like the 16th but almost gone again in the early 19th, which is why it was dropped in later orthographies).

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    And before 1948, it was reckoned as a single … letter

    Welsh does this with its many digraphs, presumably in order to mislead the English, who don’t expect chwech* to follow ci in alphabetical order. Hah!

    * A four-letter word, accordingly …

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    Happy to see Welsh standing fast against the onslaught of “but computers” thinking. Most of the orthographic (or alphabetization) reforms that I’ve seen justified by the difficulties of implementation in text processors, have come so late that Microsoft had already made Word deal with the status quo ante.

  17. Finnish is disqualified from the start

    but forgetting about hyphens would yield a decent number of examples in the vein of jäääärne, with e.g. maaaateli ‘landed gentry’, pahaaaavistamaton ‘unsuspecting’, puuuuni ‘wood-heated oven’ and päääänenkannattaja ‘main public proponent’ as reasonably often used examples. Words like syyssaappaassaanniiaava ‘one who is curtsying in one’s own fall boot’ also feel adjacent to this (and might make additional fodder for “slow” jokes) but I suspect these could be stretched out almost arbitrarily far if wanted.

    Romanized Japanese has a couple of notorious examples, IIRC often starting with Tōō ‘Eastern Europe’, which I think should get some bonus points from the fact that ‹ō› is itself already a long vowel (but then I don’t have a reference for these on hand).

  18. David Marjanović says

    but actually the 1883 dictionary I looked at treats it as two single letters when ordering headwords!

    German dictionaries used to be quite inconsistent in ordering ä ö ü as ae oe ue, a o u, or after a o u, likewise ß as ss or sz or maybe s. And while ch and sch were never treated as single letters in dictionaries that I know of, they have often been in organizers or personal phonebooks, alongside with st and sp.

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