Alliteration is a stylistic literary device identified by the repeated sound of the first letter in a series of multiple words, or the repetition of the same letter sounds in stressed syllables of a phrase.[1] "Alliteration" is from the Latin word littera, meaning "letter of the alphabet", and the first known use of the word to refer to a literary device occurred around 1624.[2] Alliteration narrowly refers to the repetition of a letter 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".[6] Another example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers".

Consonance is a broader literary device identified by the repetition of consonant sounds at any point in a word (e.g. coming home, hot foot).[7] Alliteration is a special case of consonance where the repeated consonant sound is in the stressed syllable.[8] Alliteration may also refer to the use of different but similar consonants,[9] 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 they 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.[10] In this case, the phrase must have a pair of outside end words both starting with the same sound, and pairs of outside words also starting with matching sounds as one moves progressively closer to the centre. 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 use of symmetry.


Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado is the source of a well-known example of alliterative lyrics:[11]
"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!"[12]


Historical use

Alliteration is used in the alliterative verse of Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old Irish. It was an important ingredient of the Sanskrit shlokas.[13][14] Alliteration was used 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 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 colour-/ green as grass, and greener it seemed/ than green enamel glowing bright against gold". (232-236) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Bernard O'Donoghue

"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."


Alliteration" has been used in various spheres of public speaking and rhetoric. Alliteration can also be considered an artistic constraint that is used by the orator to sway the audience to feel some type of urgency, or perhaps even lack of urgency,[19] or another emotional effect. For example, H or E sounds can soothe, whereas 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] Other sounds can create feelings of happiness, discord, or anger, depending on context. Alliteration serves to "intensify any attitude being signified".[21]:6–7 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; this helps the speaker to create a mood. The use of a repeating sound or letter is noticeable, and so forces an audience's attention and evokes emotion.

A well-known example is in John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, in which he uses alliteration 21 times. 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 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, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own." –JFK[23]

Other examples of alliteration in some famous speeches:

Pop culture

Alliteration is 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.[27]

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. James Thomson. The Castle of Indolence. ISBN 0-19-812759-6.
  7. Chris Baldick (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-19-920827-2. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  8. "alliteration".
  9. Stoll, E. E. (May 1940). "Poetic Alliteration". Modern Language Notes. 55 (5): 388.
  10. Paul Fussell (15 May 2013). The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-0-19-997197-8. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  11. Wren, Gayden (2006). A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford University Press. p. 168. ISBN 9780195301724. Retrieved 26 October 2014.
  12. The Mikado libretto, p. 16, Oliver Ditson Company
  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. 43845.
  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. Lanham, Richard (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-520-27368-9.
  22. "Alliteration". Alliteration. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
  23. "What made JFK's Inaugural Address so effective?".
  24. "I Have A Dream Speech Analysis Lesson Plan".
  25. "Obama's Alliteration".
  26. "Rhetorical Figures in Sound: Alliteration".
  27. Coard, Robert L. "Wide-Ranging Alliteration." Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 37, No. 1. (July 1959) pp. 30–32.

External links

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