Shm-reduplication is a form of reduplication in which the original word or its first syllable (the base) is repeated with the copy (the reduplicant) beginning with shm- (sometimes schm-), pronounced //. The construction is generally used to indicate irony, derision, skepticism, or disinterest with respect to comments about the discussed object:
- He's just a baby!
- What a sale!
In general, the new combination is used as an interjection. In the case of adjectives, the reduplicated combination can belong to the same syntactical category as the original.
- Words beginning with a single consonant typically replace that consonant with shm- (table shmable).
- Words beginning with a consonant cluster are more variable: some speakers replace only the first consonant if possible (breakfast shmreakfast), others replace the entire cluster (breakfast shmeakfast).
- Vowel-initial words prepend the shm- directly to the beginning of the reduplicant (apple shmapple). Although this is conventionally accepted by English speakers as an addition of a new element to a whole word, from a strictly phonetic point of view this, too, is a replacement of the initial glottal stop by the shm- morpheme.
- Some speakers target the stressed syllable rather than the first syllable (incredible inshmedible); a subset of these do not copy base material preceding the stressed syllable (incredible shmedible; cf. Spitzer 1952).
- When speaking two words, usually only the second word is shm-reduplicated (Led Zeppelin Led Shmeppelin).
- Shm-reduplication is generally avoided or altered with words that already begin with shm-; for instance, schmuck does not yield the expected *schmuck schmuck, but rather total avoidance or mutation of the shm- (giving forms like schmuck shluck, schmuck fluck, and so on).
- Many speakers use sm- instead of shm- with words that contain a sh (Ashmont Smashmont, not shmashmont).
Origins and sociolinguistic distribution
The construction originated in Yiddish and was subsequently transferred to English, especially urban northeastern American English, by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrations from Central and Eastern Europe. It is now known and used by many non-Jewish English speakers, particularly American English. The construction also transferred into Modern Hebrew usage, as a productive derogatory prefix resulting in an echoic expressive, as in David Ben-Gurion's famous dismissal of the United Nations (UN), oom shmoom (UN Shm-UN) during a March 29, 1955 government meeting. "When an Israeli speaker would like to express his impatience with or disdain for philosophy, s/he can say filosófya-shmilosófya". In German-Yiddish the same construction is possible, too, for example: Visum-Schmisum (i.e.: visa permits which have been somehow obtained, possibly below the level of legality).
Zuckermann (2009) mentions in this context the Turkic initial m-segment conveying a sense of "and so on" as in the Turkish sentence dergi mergi okumuyor, literally "magazine 'shmagazine' read:NEGATIVE:PRESENT:3rd person singular", i.e. "(He) doesn’t read magazines, journals or anything like that".
A similar phenomenon is present in most of the languages of the Balkan sprachbund, especially in colloquial Bulgarian where not only 'sh(m)-' and 'm-' but also other consonants and consonant clusters are used in this way, and its usage has its particularities that differ from what the English 'shm' indicates.
As a counterexample in linguistics
Shm-reduplication has been advanced as an example of a natural language phenomenon that cannot be captured by a context-free grammar. The essential argument was that the reduplication can be repeated indefinitely, producing a sequence of phrases of geometrically increasing length, which cannot occur in a context-free language.
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- Holly R (December 1, 1986). "The Baby". Jews for Jesus. Retrieved December 12, 2011.
- Christina Rexrode and Sarah Skidmore (December 7, 2011). "Shoppers say 'ho-hum' not 'ho-ho-ho' to sales". The Boston Globe. AP. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
- Penn Jillette and Teller (1992). Penn & Teller's how to play with your food. Villard Books. p. 35. ISBN 0-679-74311-1.
- Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2009), Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns. In Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2: 40–67, p. 49, where he also refers to Haig (2001) and Lewis (1967).
- P. Asenova. Main problems of the Balkan sprachbund. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. 2002. (Bulgarian: Асенова, П., Балканско езикознание. Основни проблеми на балканския езиков съюз. Велико Търново. 2002 г.)
- Manaster-Ramer, Alexis (1983). "The soft formal underbelly of theoretical syntax". Proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society. 19: 256–262.
- Feinsilver, Lillian Mermin. "On Yiddish Shm-". American Speech 36 (1961): 302–3.
- Nevins, Andrew and Bert Vaux. "Metalinguistic, Shmetalinguistic: The phonology of shm-reduplication". Proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society annual meeting, April 2003.
- Southern, Mark. Contagious Couplings: Transmission of Expressives in Yiddish Echo Phrases. Westport: Greenwood, 2005.
- Spitzer, Leo. "Confusion Shmooshun". Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 226–33.
- Shm-reduplication in Russian language (Russian)