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Title: Alliteration  
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Subject: Rhyme, Poetry, Alliterative verse, Onomatopoeia, Reference desk/Archives/Language/2007 September 24
Collection: Poetic Devices, Poetry Articles Needing Expert Attention
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"Alliteration" comes from the Latin word “Latira”, meaning “letters of the alphabet”. Alliteration is defined as; stylistic literary device, identified by the repeated sound of the first consonant in a series of multiple words.[1] The first known use of the word as a literary device was around 1624.[2] Alliteration is the repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables of a phrase. Alliteration developed largely through poetry, in which it more narrowly refers to the repetition of a consonant in any syllables that, according to the poem's meter, are stressed,[3][4][5] as in James Thomson's verse "Come…dragging the lazy languid Line along". Another example is, "Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers".[6]

Consonance (ex: As the wind will bend) is another 'phonetic agreement' akin to alliteration. It refers to the repetition of consonant sounds. Alliteration is a special case of consonance where the repeated consonant sound is at the stressed syllable.[7] Alliteration may also include the use of different consonants with similar properties[8] such as alliterating z with s, as does the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or as Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poets would alliterate hard/fricative g with soft g (the latter exemplified in some courses as the letter yogh - ȝ - pronounced like the y in yarrow or the j in Jotunheim); this is known as license.

There is one specialised form of alliteration called Symmetrical Alliteration. That is, alliteration containing parallelism.[9] In this case, the phrase must be constituted of two end words both starting with the same letter, and the pairs of outside words getting progressively closer to the centre of the phrase also starting with identical letters. For example, "rust brown blazers rule", "purely and fundamentally for analytical purposes" or "fluoro colour co-ordination forever". Symmetrical alliteration is similar to palindromes in its usage of symmetry.


  • In poetry, literature, and theatre 1
    • Use as a literary device 1.1
    • Examples in nursery rhymes 1.2
    • Historical use 1.3
    • In poetry 1.4
  • In rhetoric 2
  • Pop culture 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

In poetry, literature, and theatre

Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado is the source of a well-known example of alliterative lyrics:[10]
"To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"[11]
  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe has many examples of alliteration including the following line: "And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain".
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner has the following lines of alliteration: "For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky." and "the furrow followed free..."
  • Robert Frost's poem Acquainted with the Night has the following line of alliteration: "I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet".
  • In Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa (1974) the first chapter consists solely of words beginning with "A". Chapter two also permits words beginning with "B" and so on, until at chapter 26, Abish allows himself to use words beginning with any letter at all. For the next 25 chapters, he reverses the process.

Use as a literary device

Alliteration can be used in ways similar to onomatopoeia because it can be related to the sense of sound. Representing sound with words alone, as onomatopoeia does, can be difficult; so, the use of alliteration can replace onomatopoeia if the author or speaker desires. Examples of the replacement of onomatopoeia with alliteration could be the phrase “crumbly cookie”. The use of repeated C sounds is doubling as alliteration and onomatopoeia because the C sound replicates the actual crunch that they cookie would make. In addition to an aural cue, alliteration can also be a visual enhancer on which a reader can focus or be influenced.[12]

Examples in nursery rhymes

  • In "Thank-You for the Thistle" by Dorie Thurston, poetically written with alliteration in a story form: "Great Aunt Nellie and Brent Bernard who watch with wild wonder at the wide window as the beautiful birds begin to bite into the bountiful birdseed".
  • In the nursery rhyme Three Grey Geese by Mother Goose, use of alliteration can be found in the following lines : "Three grey geese in a green field grazing. Grey were the geese and green was the grazing."
  • The tongue-twister rhyme Betty Botter by Carolyn Wells is an example of alliterative composition : "Betty Botter bought some butter, but she said, this butter's bitter; if I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter, but a bit of better butter will make my bitter batter better..."
  • Another commonly recited tongue-twister rhyme illustrating alliteration is "Peter Piper". - "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?".

Historical use

Alliteration is commonly used in many languages, especially in poetry. Alliterative verse was an important ingredient of poetry in Sanskrit shlokas,[13][14] Old English, Old Norse, and Old Irish especially - as well as other old Germanic languages such as Old High German, and Old Saxon. This custom extended to personal name giving, such as in Old English given names.[15] This is evidenced by the unbroken series of 9th century kings of Wessex named Æthelwulf, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, and Æthelred. These were followed in the 10th century by their direct descendants Æthelstan and Æthelred II, who ruled as kings of England.[16] The Anglo-Saxon saints Tancred, Torhtred and Tova provide a similar example, among siblings.[17]

In poetry

In relation to English poetry, poets can call attention to certain words in a line of poetry by using alliteration. They can also use alliteration to create a pleasant, rhythmic effect. In the following poetic lines, notice how alliteration is used to emphasize words and to create rhythm:

"Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling!' Walt Whitman, "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun"

“They all gazed and gazed upon this green stranger,/because everyone wondered what it could mean/ that a rider and his horse could be such a color-/ green as grass, and greener it seemed/ than green enamel glowing bright against gold". (232-236) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Benard O'Donohue

"Some papers like writers, some like wrappers. Are you a writer or a wrapper?" Carl Sandburg, "Paper I"

Alliteration can also add to the mood of a poem. If a poet repeat soft, melodious sounds, a calm or dignified mood can result. If harsh, hard sound are repeated, on the other hand, the mood can become tense or excited. In this poem, alliteration of the s, l, and f sound adds to a hushed, peaceful mood:

"Softer be they than slippered sleep the lean lithe deer the fleet flown deer." E. E. Cummings "All in green went my love riding" [18]

In rhetoric

The term Alliteration has many potential uses in the various spheres of public speaking and rhetoric as far as persuasion is concerned. Additionally the use of alliteration can be considered an artistic constraint that is used by the Rhetor in a rhetorical situation. An artistic constraint is one that the Rhetor creates out of his or her own need to sway the audience to feel some type of urgency, or perhaps even lack of urgency, in regards to a rhetorical situation being presented.[19] Such examples of Alliteration as an artistic constraint can be seen when it is used to create an emotional effect on the audience. For example: H or E sounds can sooth where as a P or a B sound can be percussive and attention grabbing. S sounds can imply danger or make the audience feel as if they are being deceived[20] Alliteration also serves as a linguistic rhetorical device more commonly used in persuasive public speaking. Rhetoric is broadly defined as the "Art of Persuasion", which has from earliest times been concerned with specific techniques for effective communication.[21] Alliteration serves to "intensify any attitude being signified".[21] Its significance as a rhetorical device is that it adds a textural complexity to a speech, making it more engaging, moving, and memorable. The use of alliteration[22] in a speech captivates a person's auditory senses that assists in creating a mood for the speaker. The use of a repeating sound or letter forces an audience’s attention because of their distinct and noticeable nature. The auditory senses, hearing and listening, seem to perk up and pay attention with the constant sounds of alliteration. It also evokes emotion which is key in persuading an audience. The idea of pathos solidifies that playing to a person's emotions is key in persuading them and connecting them to the argument that is being made. For example, the use of a "H" sound can produce a feeling of calmness.[23] Other sounds can create feelings of happiness, discord, or anger, depending on the context of the alliteration. These feelings become memorable to a listener, which have been created by alliteration.

The most common example of this is in John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, where he uses alliteration twenty-one times throughout his speech. The last paragraph of his speech is given as an example here.

"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice (ALLITERATION) which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love (ALLITERATION), asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own." –JFK[24]

Other examples of alliteration in some famous speeches:

  • "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." — Martin Luther King, Jr.[25]
  • "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth". — Barack Obama[26]
  • "And our nation itself is testimony to the love our veterans have had for it and for us. All for which America stands is safe today because brave men and women have been ready to face the fire at freedom's front." — Ronald Reagan, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Address[27]
  • "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Pop culture

Alliteration is most commonly used in modern music but is also seen in magazine article titles, advertisements, business names, comic strips, television shows, video games and in the dialogue and naming of cartoon characters.[28]

An example would be Tupac Shakur's "If I Die 2Nite" off his Me Against The World release.

See also


  1. ^ "Definition of Alliteration, Literary Devices". Retrieved 2013-09-27. 
  2. ^ "Alliteration, Merriam-Webster". Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  3. ^ "Alliteration, University of Tennessee Knoxville". Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  4. ^ "Definition of Alliteration, Literary Devices". Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  5. ^ "Definition of Alliteration,". Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  6. ^  
  7. ^ Alliteration - The Free Dictionary
  8. ^ Stoll, E. E. (May 1940). "Poetic Alliteration". Modern Language Notes 55 (5): 388. 
  9. ^ Paul Fussell (15 May 2013). The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press. p. 98.  
  10. ^ Wren, Gayden (2006). A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford Univesity Press. p. 168.  
  11. ^ The Mikado libretto, p. 16, Oliver Ditson Company
  12. ^ "Alliteration-Figurative Language". Retrieved 2014-09-27. 
  13. ^ Langer, Kenneth, "Some Suggestive Uses of Alliteration in Sanskrit Court Poetry", Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 98, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1978), pp. 438–45.
  14. ^ K.N. Jha, Figurative Poetry In Sanskrit Literature, 1975, ISBN 978-8120826694
  15. ^ Gelling, M., Signposts to the Past (2nd edition), Phillimore, 1988, pp. 163–4.
  16. ^ Old English "Æthel" translates to modern English "noble". For further examples of alliterative Anglo-Saxon royal names, including the use of only alliterative first letters, see e.g. Yorke, B., Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Seaby, 1990, Table 13 (p. 104; Mercia, names beginning with "C", "M", and "P"), and pp. 142–3 (Wessex, names beginning with "C"). For discussion of the origins and purposes of Anglo-Saxon "king lists" (or "regnal lists"), see e.g. Dumville, D.N., 'Kingship, Genealogies and Regnal Lists', in Sawyer, P.H. & Wood, I.N. (eds.), Early Medieval Kingship, University of Leeds, 1977.
  17. ^ Rollason, D.W., "Lists of Saints' resting-places in Anglo-Saxon England", in Anglo-Saxon England 7, 1978, p. 91.
  18. ^ Techniques Writers Use
  19. ^ Bitzer, Lloyd (1968). "The Rhetorical Situation". Philosophy and Rhetoric. 
  20. ^ "Literary Devices, Author's Craft". Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  21. ^ a b Lanham, Richard (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 131.  
  22. ^ "Alliteration". Alliteration. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
  23. ^ "Pathos." Pathos. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
  24. ^ "What made JFK's Inaugural Address so effective?". 
  25. ^ "I Have A Dream Speech Analysis Lesson Plan". 
  26. ^ "Obama's Alliteration". 
  27. ^
  28. ^ Coard, Robert L. "Wide-Ranging Alliteration." Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 37, No. 1. (July 1959) pp. 30–32.

External links

  • A collection of Dutch alliterations and related material (with sound files)
  • Examples of alliteration in poetry
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