What Is Alliteration?

The Different Meanings of Repeated Consonant Sounds

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Alliteration (also known as head rhyme, initial rhyme, or front rhyme) is a device in written and spoken language in which a string of words and phrases repeats the same letter or letter combinations. Much of children's poetry uses alliteration: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" is a memorable tongue-twister taught to English-speaking children. It is initially alliterative on the letter p—and internally repetitive on the letters p and ck.

But it isn't the specific letter that makes a phrase alliterative, it is the sound: so you could say that the alliterative function of Peter and his peppers includes the "p_k" and "p_p" sounds.

Meaning in Poetry

Alliteration is probably most often used for humorous reasons, to elicit a giggle in children, but in skilled hands, it can mean quite a bit more. The American poet Edgar Allan Poe memorably used it to illustrate the emotional power of different types of bells:

"Hear the sledges with their bells—Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

Hear the loud alarum bells—Brazen bells!

What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!"

("The Bells," Edgar Allan Poe 1849)

Songwriter Stephen Stills used a combination of hard and soft "c" sounds and "l" sounds to illustrate the emotional disarray of a pair of lovers ending their relationship. Notice that the "c" sounds are the conflicted narrator, and the "l" sound is that of his lady.

  • Stand by the stairway you'll see something certain to tell you
  • Confusion has its cost
  • Love isn't lying it's loose in a lady who lingers
  • Saying she is lost
  • And choking on hello
  • (Heartlessly Hoping, Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969)

In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's tour-de-force Broadway musical, Aaron Burr sings:

  • Constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen  
  • Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!
  • (Guns and Ships, Lin-Manual Miranda 2015)

But it can be quite a subtle tool as well. In the example below, poet Robert Frost uses "w" as a soft recollection of quiet winter days:

  • He will not see me stopping here
  • to watch his woods fill up with snow
  • (Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost, 1923)

The Science of Alliteration

The repeating patterns of sound including alliteration have been tied to the retention of information, as a mnemonic device that helps people recall a phrase and its meaning. In a study conducted by linguists Frank Boers and Seth Lindstromberg, people who were learning English as a second language found it easier to retain the meaning of idiomatic phrases that included alliteration, such as "from pillar to post" and "carbon copies" and "spic and span."

Psycholinguistics studies such as that by P.E. Bryant and colleagues suggests that children with a sensitivity to rhyme and alliteration learn to read sooner and more rapidly than those who don't, even more than those measured against IQ or educational background.

Latin and Other Languages

Alliteration is used by writers of most Indo-European languages, including English, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Sanskrit, and Icelandic.

Alliteration was used by classical Roman prose writers, and occasionally in poetry. Most writing about the subject by the Roman themselves describes the use of alliteration in prose texts, especially in religious and legal formulas. There are some exceptions, such as the Roman poet Gnaeus Naevius: 

  • libera lingua loquemur ludis Liberalibus
  • We shall speak with a free tongue at the festival of Liber.
  • Gnaeus Naevius (270–201 BCE)

And Lucretius uses it to full effect, with a repeated "p" sound that mimics the sound of mighty ker-plunking splashes made by giants crossing vast oceans:

  • Denique cur homines tantos natura parare
  • non potuit, pedibus qui pontum per vada possente
  • And why can’t nature make men so large
  • that they cross the depths of the sea with their feet
  • Lucretius (99-55 BCE), De Rerum Natura

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Alliteration?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/alliteration-definition-1692387. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, December 31). What Is Alliteration? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/alliteration-definition-1692387 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Alliteration?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/alliteration-definition-1692387 (accessed January 20, 2018).