What is Alliteration?

What is Alliteration?

Alliteration refers to the repeated initial sounds of a series of words. It is a rhetorical device that has a variety of functions in literature, such as expressing repetition of thought, achieving rhythm or elevating language for the listener or reader. Some literature experts claim that consonance and assonance are certain types of alliteration, whereas others may define these as separate terms.

Alliteration is commonly viewed as a trope of literature, but we see alliteration all around us every day in a variety of media where a writer tries to get the reader's attention, from newspaper headlines proclaiming a "Mysterious Murder" to advertisements promising "Moonlight Madness."

Identifying Alliteration

In general, alliteration refers to the repetition of the initial sounds of a series of words. For example, take the sentence: "Sally saw seventeen savages." This sentence repeats the "s" sound four times, resulting in alliteration. Alliteration can also refer to the repetition of the first syllable of a series of words, such as the phrase "he heeded hearing his healer." In this case, the "he" syllable is repeated. An occasional break in the chain of repeated sounds can still be considered a loose alliteration, as is the case with "his."

To identify alliteration in a poem, look for pairs or groups of words that begin with the same phonetic sound. Words may begin with identical letters or with letter combinations that create similar sounds. For example, "nest" and "know" create alliteration with similar opening sounds. The words may be directly next to each other in a poem, or they may be within the same line or couple of lines.

Types of Alliteration

Consonance

Consonance refers to the repeated consonant sounds at the beginning, middle or end of a word. Although some claim consonance is not alliteration, many argue that consonance overlaps with alliteration only when the repeated consonant sounds occur at the beginning of the world. An example of consonance can be found in this sentence: "Nimbly, he named the numbers." The repeated "n" and "m" sounds cause both consonance and alliteration.

Assonance

Assonance refers to the repetition of vowel sounds somewhere within a word. Similarly to consonance, scholars debate whether or not assonance is alliteration. However, it is generally accepted that repetitions of vowel sounds at the beginning of words is both assonance and alliteration. Here's an example of assonance: "All alterations always alter my clothes awfully." The repetition of the soft "a" sound causes alliteration and assonance.

Unvoiced Alliteration

Some alliterations may not be voiced or expressed in speech. In other words, some letters at the beginning of words may be silent and unpronounced, but these letters can still contribute to alliteration. For example, a text could read: "Perry just poked a pink pterodactyl." The repetition of the "p" includes "pterodactyl,"although the "p" in the word is silent. This still counts as alliteration.

Reasons We Use Alliteration

To Create Mood

Alliteration can also be used to create a certain mood. For example, the repetition of "b," "j," "ch," "tch" and both hard and soft "g's" -- all harsh, jarring sounds -- create a discordant, chilling effect in the nonsensical poem "Jabberwocky," by Lewis Carroll. Many of the words in the poem are made up, but the poet's use of alliteration is so effective that a reader can still apply meaning, even without knowing the definition of the words. Carroll utilizes alliteration so well that you can almost hear the terrible "Jabberwock" come stomping and snorting to meet his death.

To Create Rhythm

Gwendolyn Brooks' simple poem "We Real Cool" uses alliteration to help establish a firm beat. "Lurk late," "Sing sin," and "Jazz June" are all alliterative phrases that make the poem sound like rap and aid in creating the identities of the pool players, who think they are "Real Cool." Unfortunately for them, their "cool" lives end quickly and on a non-alliterative note, "We Die soon," suggesting the insignificance of their brief and trivial lives.

To Make You Laugh

Every child laughs at the silly alliterative nursery rhyme "Peter Piper Picked a Pack of Pickled Peppers." Some alliteration examples for kids can be found on TV, in film titles and with characters, who often use alliteration for a comical effect, such as "Beavis and Butthead," "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Woody Woodpecker," "Betty Boop," and "Mini Me."

Names like these signal to the viewer that the show or movie is a comedy. "Pooper-Scooper" is a humorous brand name that employs alliteration -- and rhyme to boot -- to add a light touch to an otherwise gross product, enhancing its appeal.

To Help You Remember

Many idiomatic expressions that we remember have an alliterative spelling, such as "dull as dirt" or "the bigger the better." Famous terms that journalists first use also often catch on because of their alliterative effect, such as "baby boomer" and "Nascar nation." Companies choose alliterative business and brand names so consumers won't forget them, such as "Google," "Twitter," "Burt's Bees" and "Tater Tots." Children also remember alliterative phrases easily, so entertainment geared toward them makes creative use of names in these alliteration examples for kids, like "Bob the Builder" and "Mickey Mouse."

Examples

“If the World Was Crazy"

Children’s author Shel Silverstein also makes use of alliteration. In the second line of his poem “If the World Was Crazy," Silverstein uses repeated "s" sounds for humor: "If the world was crazy, you know what I’d eat? A big slice of soup and a whole quart of meat."

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

A famous example of alliteration is found in the repeated “d” sounds in the first line of the last stanza of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. The subtle alliteration lends a soothing quality to the passage: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep."

Beowolf

Alliteration is used in ​Beowulf​ in the following lines to better illustrate how Grendel is sneaking into the hall, unseen: "He found them sprawled in sleep, suspecting nothing, their dreams undisturbed/Up from his swampland, sliding silently. Toward that gold-shining hall."

"The Raven"

Edgar Allen Poe uses alliteration in his poem “The Raven” to emphasize the melancholy mood. Phrases like “weak and weary” and “doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” work to illustrate Poe's intention in the poem.

"I Have a Dream" speech

The most famous line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech uses alliteration to emphasize the power of his words and message: “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.”

Romeo and Juliet

In this play by William Shakespeare, he uses alliteration to create rhythm and evoke emotion from the reader with these lines: "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life"

Tongue Twisters

Alliteration is most clearly illustrated in popular tongue twisters, like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," or, "she sells seashells by the sea shore."

"Human Nature"

The lines, "Hear her voice, shake my window/Sweet seducing sighs" in "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson use alliteration to create a fun, playful mood to go along with his lyrics.

Weird feature: Alliteration with "W"

"Whisper words of wisdom, let it be" - "Let It Be" by the Beatles.