alliteration

alliteration

[uh-lit-uh-rey-shuhn]
alliteration, the repetition of the same starting sound in several words of a sentence. Probably the most powerful rhythmic and thematic uses of alliteration are contained in Beowulf, written in Anglo-Saxon and one of the earliest English poems extant. For example:
Ða com of more under mist-hleopum
Grendel gongan; Godes yrre baer …(Then came from the moor, under the misty hills,
Grendel stalking; the God's anger bare).
Beowulf, Book XI
The poet was drawing here on an even older Germanic tradition, just as he was setting a high standard for other poets in Anglo-Saxon, who produced such alliterative works as Widsith, Deor's Lament, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Ruin. Although the tradition lay dormant for centuries, an alliterative revival occurred in England in the mid-1400s, as evidenced by such masterworks as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see Langland, William; Pearl, The). Shakespeare parodies alliteration in Peter Quince's Prologue in A Midsummer Night's Dream:
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely breach'd his boiling bloody breast.
Modern poets have continually renewed the possibilities of alliteration, e.g., Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Pied Beauty":
Glory be to God for dappled things …
Landscapes plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
or head rhyme

Repetition of consonant sounds in two or more neighbouring words or syllables. A frequently used poetic device, it is often discussed with assonance (the repetition of stressed vowel sounds within two or more words with different end consonants) and consonance (the repetition of end or medial consonants).

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Alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant sound in a phrase. A common example in English is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." Alliteration can take the form of assonance, the repetition of a vowel, or consonance, the repetition of a consonant; however, unlike a strict definition of alliteration, both assonance and consonance can regularly occur within words as opposed to being limited to the word's initial sound. Some critics hold the opinion that the term "alliteration" applies just as accurately to phonetic repetitions that occur elsewhere than the first position (first letter), sometimes falling on later syllables, yet retaining alliterative properties due to the form of the example's meter, which, through affecting the syllables' stress may mimic the intensity of the initial. Further, the use of differing consonants of similar properties (labials, dentals, etc.) is sometimes considered to be alliteration. Similarly, phrases such as "Apt alliteration's artful aid" still seems to retain the efficacy of alliteration despite the unique pronunciation of the "a" in each word. This has been attributed by the American writer Fred Newton Scott to the sharing of the attribute of a glottal stop (which he terms the "glottal catch") by virtually every vowel in the English language when it is found in the initial position.

The relative formal accessibility of alliteration makes it one of the most commonly used literary tools in English, tracing its origins back to Old English and other Germanic languages such as Old High German, Old Norse, and Old Saxon. Particularly notable examples of early literary alliteration can be found in these languages' poetry, namely alliterative verse. Alliterative verse is a form of poetry that relies heavily on consonance and assonance rather than rhyme. Perhaps the most famous example of Old English alliterative poetry is this passage from the epic Beowulf: "Gan under Gyldnum Beage, þær þa godan twegen".

Another use of alliteration in Old English, outside the literary sphere, is found in personal name giving. 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. The Anglo-Saxon saints Tancred, Torhtred and Tova provide a similar example, among sibling.

As testament to the pervasive use of alliteration in English poetry, it is commonly tabulated and statistically analyzed, and has even for example been mapped in a Thomas Churchyard poem in order to correctly date it in relation to his other works. Statistics can also fuel debates on author’s alliterative motive, in attempts to determine if the alliterations that critics find were included by chance or by the author’s volition. One such study of 100 Shakespearian sonnets concluded that the author “might as well have drawn his words out of a hat”, and provoked other critics' defense of the questioned alliteration.

Books aimed at young readers often use alliteration, as it consistently captures children's interest.

Alliteration survives most obviously in modern English in magazine article titles, advertisements and business names, comic strip or cartoon characters, and common expressions:

  • Magazine articles: “Science has Spoiled my Supper”, “Too Much Talent in Tennessee?”, and "Kurdish Control of Kirkuk Creates a Powder Keg in Iraq"
  • Comic/cartoon characters: Beetle Bailey, Donald Duck, Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent
  • Restaurants: Coffee Corner, Sushi Station
  • Expressions: busy as a bee, dead as a doornail, good as gold, right as rain, etc...
  • Music: Blackalicious' "Alphabet Aerobics" focuses on the uses of alliteration in rhyme
  • Names: 'Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii'

However, it still seems to maintain an important, though perhaps more subtle, part in modern English poetry.

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