Linguistics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional linguists and others with an interest in linguistic research and theory. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Many languages seem to have some sort of repeating and/or singsong equivalent of the phrase so-so:

  • Arabic: نصف نصف (nisf nisf)
  • Chinese: 馬馬虎虎 (mǎma hūhu)
  • Greek: έτσι κι έτσι
  • Hebrew: ככה ככה
  • Italian: così così
  • Japanese: まあまあ (māmā)
  • Malay: jadi-jadi
  • Maori: na-na
  • Thai: เรื่อยๆ (rêuay rêuay)
  • Welsh: mor-mor

Is there a common origin somewhere I'm not understanding, or some theory to explain this?

share|improve this question

migrated from Jul 21 '14 at 16:59

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

Common origin: no. Not unless you ascribe to Joseph Greenberg and his ilk in believing that we are able to guess at more than the vaguest of generalisations regarding Proto-World, there can be no question that a common origin is impossible. There is a common idea behind all this, and that is an interesting question that I have never heard of anyone mentioning or writing about. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s on-topic on ELU, which is specifically about English. It would be a much better fit on Linguistics. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '14 at 15:50
In hebrew it's ככה-ככה by the way – Madara Uchiha Jul 21 '14 at 15:54
@JanusBahsJacquet It is rather odd how often it occurs. The OP probably chose example languages that were intentionally unrelated or very distantly related at best, but here are some from more common Western languages, many of which I’m sure you already know: ES, Gal así-así, PT assim-assim, CA així-així, IT così così, FR couci-couça, RO atât de-atât. The Germanic languages mostly have close cognates to so-so and the Slavics like reduplicative versions with their tak cognate. More interesting perhaps are the languages without an echoic version. – tchrist Jul 21 '14 at 16:39
@tchrist Interestingly, some of the languages that do not have echoic phrases like this are the Scandinavian ones. At least I’m not aware of any at all in Swedish or Norwegian; Danish has one (bob-bob or bop-bop), but that’s a recent invention from the 1990s. (A direct translation of so-so is så-så or såså, which can mean either “there, there” in a consolatory manner, or “now, now!” in an authoritative, warning manner, but not “so-so”.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '14 at 16:41
Also, ascribe to in my first comment was supposed to be subscribe to. Typo-brainfart. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '14 at 16:44

Is there a common origin? No. Is there some theory to explain this? I propose one: common need.

In Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items, Dingemanse et. al. have found that in 10 languages, (and less carefully studied, 30 languages)

Huh? is universal, and that it is a word. ...the similarities in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance. ... it is a lexical, conventionalised form that has to be learnt, unlike grunts or emotional cries. We discuss possible reasons for the cross-linguistic similarity and propose an account in terms of convergent evolution. Huh? is a universal word ...because it is shaped by selective pressures in an interactional environment that all languages share: that of other-initiated repair.

I would propose a similar mechanism for "so-so": although it is not the same word in every language, there is a strong need in language for a short, meaningful expression that connotes the ambiguity of so so.

I would add that in French, the expression is comme ci comme ça, Spanish asi asi (or mas o menos), in Finnish niin ja näin, etc.

Edited to add: why would the word/phrase be echoic? So-so is a short phrase that truly admits to the bad existing with the good in approximately equal measure. It's a hard thing to talk about ("Well, he's in the ICU in a coma on a respirator, but the neurologists tell us there's still a fair amount of brain activity, and no evidence of increasing intracranial pressure, so it looks like he might come out of this, but we don't know how intact he'll be."). How's your marriage? So-so. How are your job prospects doing? So-so. Sure, there are minor events that could be applied to. But the principle is the same. If someone wants to be honest but doesn't want to elaborate, so-so indicated the ambiguity: some good, some bad. Like this, like that (French, Italian and Spanish).

This is how I understand it.

share|improve this answer
This looks like part of the answer but we still don't have an explanation why a repetitive sound would be the ideal solution for expressing ambiguity. – Moss Jul 23 '14 at 17:01

This is called reduplication. It is a wide-spread phenomenon in most languages.

share|improve this answer
The question is why should so many unrelated languages use reduplication for this particular meaning. – Moss Jul 21 '14 at 22:26
@Moss: reduplication is a phenomenon of morphology, just like prefixing, suffixing, etc. I don't think you'll find a "why" answered for any of these. – prash Jul 21 '14 at 22:35
-1 we are looking for answers that proved in detail responses – user1916 Jul 22 '14 at 15:59
At least I know how to spell "provide". – fdb Jul 22 '14 at 19:43
Have to agree with the downvote here. The question was not what to call this repetition, but rather if there is something particular about the meaning so-so that makes such a statistically highly significant number of languages—even ones that do not employ reduplication productively—use a reduplicated phrase for it. This is not an answer to that at all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 22 '14 at 23:00

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.