17 Mar 2017

Table tennis and ping pong are fighting for language dominance, and there is one clear winner.

by Wade Townsend

Have you posted an action shot or video of an epic point to Instagram lately? If you did you may have had the dilemma of which hashtag to use. Do you go for the orthodox yet classic #tabletennis or is the #pingpong more suited to your hipster inclinations?

If you looking for the most love-hearts then your choice is simple. #pingpong has 547,352 posts while #tabletennis is lagging behind with 271,163. That’s twice as many ping-pong hashtags.

But it’s not just in the digital world where ping-pong is winning.Google Ngram Viewer lets us see that table tennis has less usage in printed texts and is on a decline, while ping-pong is winning in usage and is in the midst of an upswing.

So what has ping-pong got in its favour? There are two key linguistic areas where it is the frontrunner.

First up, while ping-pong started life as a noun, it now can function both as a noun and a verb.

Verbing nouns is a linguistic shortcut; an easy, compact way of getting your point across. Language loves keeping things short and sweat, but the internet has accelerated with limited words in Tweets, to disappearing Snapchats.

Using a noun as a verb lets us get a lot more information across in a shorter time,  Don’t believe me? Go Google it. Oh wait, that’s a noun that got verbed as well. You can friend someone on Facebook and or go old school and SMS them instead. All these words started their life as nouns but through popular usage have gone and got verbed.

Go checkout the current UK news and you’ll see that ‘ping-pong’ is currently trending as a bill is struggling to make clear headway in parliament. A bill can’t table tennis but it definitely can ping-pong back and forth.

So with twice the potential for usage, it’s already in front.

The other area it dominates is in phonetics and phonology; basically how your mouth creates sounds and the arrangement of these sounds in words.

English generally prefers vowel patterns where the tongue goes from high to low and also favour being said in the front of the mouth then moving to the back.

Struggling to understand? Don’t worry, here’s a way to play along at home. Try saying these words out loud, concentrating on what your tongue is doing and where the vowel is moving in your mouth. Yes, you will look a bit stupid talking to yourself, so maybe wait until you’re not in public; or just YOLO it (YOLO is also a word that got verbed).

Here’s the list: zig-zag, chit-chat, King Kong, see-saw, bread and butter, shoes and socks, lock and load

Notice how vowels move from the front to the back of the mouth and the tongue moves from the roof to the floor.

The order even defies real world logic. Socks come before shoes and you’e going to load before locking. But the English language doesn’t care for such procedural anomalies and vowels take precedence over supposed common sense. This ultimately means ping-pong scientifically sounds better to the human ear over the rather clumsy and forced table tennis.

Is it just a coincidence that two of the most dominant countries in the history of table tennis use the superior sounding pingis in Swedish and pingpang in Chinese?

ITTF rebranding itself to the IPPF just to get in on those hashtags won’t be happening anytime soon, but linguistically, ping-pong is always going to have the edge over table tennis. So next time you’re posting to Instagram remember to use #pingpong to get that exposure your forehand deserves. And why not use #tabletennis as well, it needs a little love.

General News