Hello, all you learned literary lovers and notorious narrative nuts to this week’s blog post where we will explore and expound upon through exposition and example the exponential potential of the written word. As the astute may ascertain, I’m alluding to the alluring and ludicrous art of alliteration. Together we’ll unveil a variety of versatile verses to alliterate your way into some positively pretentious possibilities. So for fans of the pepper-picking Peter Piper and the butter-buying Betty Botter, this is the optimal online article to fulfill your freaky phonetic fixations.
(Sorry, I’ll try to get a hold of myself…)
Let’s take a look at alliteration, which is the repetition of similar sounds at the beginning of a set of adjacent or closely connected words.
Origins of Alliteration
The use of alliteration in poetry dates back to around the 8th century, where it was very popular amongst the Germanic peoples. Alliterative poetry, where alliteration rather than rhyme is used to form a metrical pattern, actually got its beginnings in the Germanic languages and can be seen in popular works such as the Old Norse Poetic Edda, the Old High German Muspilli, and the Old English epic Beowolf. Beowolf itself boasts an impressive 3,182 alliterative lines. It’s suspected that alliteration was a popular oral tradition long before the 8th century. There’s a famous set of horns dating back to 5th century Denmark, called the Golden Horns of Gallehus, that bear an inscription of the oldest discovered runic alphabet: “I, Hlewagastir, [son] of Holt, made the horn.” This inscription is considered the earliest preserved example of alliterative verse.
However, if you want the gold standard of alliterative verse, look to Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson, whose name is just impossibly perfect for someone who, the famous Prose Edda, first described the metrics of alliterative verse used during the 12th century. Also for someone who unintentionally set the standard for dwarf names hundreds of years later. See for yourself:
“Na, Nain,– Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda
Wait, why are my nerd senses tingling?
Crafty, crafty Tolkein-ses!
Snorri Sturluson was one of many during the 12th century that revived the art of alliterative verse. J.R.R. Tolkein spent a considerable amount of his academic career studying and even translating many of these old works of alliterative poetry during this Middle English alliterative revival period and became himself one of the champions of a modern alliterative movement in literature and poetry alongside others like C.S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Richard Wilbur. Compare these two sets of alliterative verses from Sturluson and Tolkein:
“Weary am I of the mountains,– Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda
Not long was I there,
Only nine nights.
The howl of the wolves
Methought sounded ill
To the song of the swans.”
“Let the bow of Beleg / to your band be joined;– J. R. R. Tolkein, The Lay of the Children of Húrin
and swearing death / to the sons of darkness
let us suage our sorrow / and the smart of fate!
Our valour is not vanquished, / nor vain the glory
that once we did win / in the woods of old.”
Many of the songs Tolkein crafted around his books are based in alliterative verse. He was in love with the stuff. Even the name Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End is pure alliteration. Tolkein wrote so much alliterative poetry that Wikipedia has a page dedicated solely to listing all the alliterative verse that he wrote in his lifetime.
Rules of Alliteration
1. Alliteration doesn't have to start with the same letter as long as it's the same sound. Example: "country and king" is alliterative even though the words begin with different letters whereas "pepper and pterodactyl" isn't alliterative since the 'p' in pterodactyl is silent. 2. Alliteration may occur as repeating sounds within the first letters or syllables of a word as well as repeating sounds within the stressed or emphasized syllables of words. Example: "happy harpies harping" is alliterative, and so is "daring undoing" even though the 'd' is in the second syllable because it's the second syllable that is emphasized. 3. Vowels can be alliterative as long as they have the same sound. Example: "ethereal evanescence of the everyday" is an example of alliteration because the 'e' sounds are the same whereas "often open orphanage" is not alliterative because the 'o' sounds are all different.
Types of Alliterative Sounds
Sibiliant Alliteration: alliteration that uses repeating ‘s,’ ‘ci,’ or ‘z’ words (and possibly others) to create a whistling, hushing, or hissing sound.
“I don’t wanna meet your kin– Bob Dylan, “All I Really Wanna Do”
Make you spin or do you in
Or select you, or dissect you
Or inspect you, or reject you…”
Fricative Alliteration: alliteration that uses repeating ‘v’ or ‘f’ words to create an airy, breathless sound that is commonly used to convey a mysterious or light atmosphere.
“I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins.– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
That almost freezes up the heat of life.”
Plosive Alliteration: alliteration that uses repeating ‘b,’ ‘g,’ ‘k,’ or ‘p’ words to make a small explosive sound that is often used to add strong emphasis.
“Paved paradise,– Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
Put in a parking lot.”
Dental Alliteration: alliteration that uses words beginning with ‘d’ and ‘t’ whose sounds are made by pressing your tongue against your upper teeth, also used for strong emphasis.
“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why.”Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Vocalic Alliteration: alliteration that uses vowels rather than consonants.
“And all the phantom, Nature, stands—– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,—
A hollow form with empty hands.
That all, as in some piece of art
Is toil co-operant to an end.”
Guttural Alliteration: alliteration that uses repeating ‘g’ and ‘c’ words to create a deep, harsh sound from the back of the mouth.
“As greedy as gluttons they go to their beds,– William Langland, Piers Plowman
And rise up as ribalds, these robberlike knaves;”
Liquid Alliteration: alliteration that uses repeating ‘l’ and ‘r’ words to create a light, fluid sound.
“Little old lady got mutilated late last night.”– Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London”
Uses of Alliteration
As you might have noticed in reading through some of the examples above, the letter chosen to create an alliteration has a huge impact on the sound created by the set of lines. That’s the primary purpose of alliteration: to create a certain sound and therefore establish a rhythm or mood. The beauty of alliteration is that it can tailored to create whatever atmosphere is needed, whether it be a gritty grouping of guttural grunts to convey an unpleasant mood or whether it be the lovely lull of lyrical lullabies to invoke a soft atmosphere. The repeating sounds add a harmony to sets of lines that can make them very pleasing to the ear. That’s why alliteration is so common in music and poetry. Take a listen:
Poetry and music often use alliteration in combination with rhymes and repetition to create a symphony of words that is astoundingly artful.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.,– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken,
And the darkness gave no token,”
The uniformity lent by alliteration makes it popular for names as well. Take the comic industry for example: Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Steven Strange, The Fantastic Four, Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Wonder Woman, the Caped Crusader, the Scarlet Speedster…the list is absolutely endless. The names ARE catchy though. You remember them more easily because of how well they seem to fit together. Marketing has caught on to that too, which is why you have companies named Dunkin’ Donuts and Coca-Cola. Even their annoyingly memorable jingles employ alliteration to capture your attention.
Beyond just the sound itself and the mood created, alliteration can also be used to suggest a theme or imbue an impression beyond just the sound itself. Let’s take this example of how Everett McGill delivers this line in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
“Well, sir, I’m Jordan Rivers. And these here as the Soggy Bottom Boys out of Cottonelia, Mississippi—songs of salvation to salve the soul. Uh, we hear that you pay good money to sing into a can.”– Everett McGrill, O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
Set in the Old South, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? alludes to the Bible in a number of ways, from the title to actual plot points like the prophecy from the blind man. The alliteration in this line uses soulful undertones one might associate with religious fervor, but it also tends to draw attention to the pretty straightforward punchline about Everett’s greed, which the Bible classifies as a sin. The alliteration used in these specific line is sibilant alliteration. “Songs of salvation to salve the soul” definitely falls into the hissing category, don’t you think? And hissing is pretty synonymous with snakes, and what’s the most famous snake in the Bible? That’s right: the one embodied by the devil that tempted Adam and Eve to commit the first original sin. The alliteration in these scene not only provides sound and emphasis, but it contributes to the story’s theme at the same time.
An extreme form of alliteration is known as paroemion, where nearly every word in a sentence or phrase begins with the same letter. In particular, the previously pointed out pepper-picking Peter Piper provides a perfect paragon of paraoemion. (I’m SORRY. It’s really addicting, okay!?) Probably the most famous example of paroemion is V’s introduction to Evey in the Wachowskis’ adaptation of V for Vendetta.
“But on this most auspicious of nights, permit me then, in lieu of the more commonplace soubriquet, to suggest the character of this dramatis persona. Voilà! In view humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin, vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honour to meet you and you may call me V.”– V, V for Vendetta (2005)
V for Vendetta is a dark and depressing look into a dystopian future where the government forcibly removes people from the population whom it finds to be different, weak, or noncontributing. So why this seemingly out of place light-hearted alliterative banter? It’s clear that V is stating his intentions of standing up against an oppressive regime and presenting his reasons for it, but why such theatrical use of paroemion?
V is the voice for change, and to be that voice, he’s cast off his true self to play this part as an actor of sorts, as a symbol, thus the costume and theatrical monologue. He basically says as much himself. The word “vaudevillain” actually refers to a type of theatrical entertainment, so by saying he’s a “vaudevillain veteran” V is admitting to being an actor, one forged by fate to be both victimized by the system and become a villain to it. But that’s not all. A vaudeville show isn’t just an type of entertainment. It refers to variety shows like concert saloons or freak shows or burlesque shows, shows that revel and take pride in the lewd and low-brow and the strangeness of humanity. And isn’t that what V represents—the freedom to be human, to be different, to be a freak in a society that demands unity through an iron-fist conformity? Interesting enough, the word “vaudeville” is actually thought to originally mean “city voice.” And being a voice for the people is the most essential part of his character, so why wouldn’t he use flamboyant rhetoric to assert his opposition to what is normal and acceptable and conforming? The overuse of fricative alliteration in this scene is perfect because it conveys both an airy, mysterious feel while also establishing V’s theatrical persona.
At first glance, alliteration can seem like a whimsical way to whet your words—and by god it is! (Have you read the titles of my blog posts…I have a serious alliterative ailment.) But it can be more than just a fun flow or a fantastical flourish. It can provide insight into your characters, your setting, and the mood of your scenes. Most importantly though, I think it can create a sense of sound in your writing. The senses are a viral part of bringing to life the worlds that we create, which is why we agonize so tirelessly over our descriptions to depict the sights, tastes, feelings, and sounds to such potency that others can be drawn into this imaginary place and become as captivated by it as we are. Alliteration and its ability to create sound is one of the many literary tools that can help you enhance that feeling of realness for your readers.
Create! Alliterate! Captivate!
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