Alliteration is the repetition of syllable-initial consonant sounds between nearby words, or of syllable-initial vowels, if the syllables in question do not start with a consonant.[1] It is often used as a literary device. A common example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," in which the "p" sound is repeated.

Historical use

Main articles: Alliterative verse and Alliterative Revival

The word alliteration comes from the Latin word littera, meaning "letter of the alphabet". It was first coined in a Latin dialogue by the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano in the 15th century.[2]

Alliteration is used in the alliterative verse of Old English poems like Beowulf, Middle English poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Old Norse works like the Poetic Edda, and in Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old Irish.[3] It was also used as an ornament to suggest connections between ideas in classical Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit poetry.[4][5][6][7]

Today, alliteration is used poetically in various languages around the world, including Arabic, Irish, German, Mongolian, Hungarian, American Sign Language, Somali, Finnish, and Icelandic.[8] It is also used in music lyrics, article titles in magazines and newspapers, and in advertisements, business names, comic strips, television shows, video games and in the dialogue and naming of cartoon characters.[9]

Types of alliteration

There are several concepts to which the term alliteration is sometimes applied:

  1. Literary or poetic alliteration is often described as the repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words.[10][11][12][13] However, this is an oversimplification; there are several special cases that have to be taken into account:
    • Repetition of unstressed consonants does not count as alliteration.[14] Only stressed syllables can alliterate (though "stressed" includes any syllable that counts as an upbeat in poetic meter,[15][16] such as the syllable long in James Thomson's verse "Come . . . dragging the lazy languid line along".)
    • The repetition of syllable-initial vowels functions as alliteration, regardless of which vowels are used.[17] This may be because such syllables start with a glottal stop.[18]
    • In English (and in other Germanic languages), the consonant clusters sp-, st-, and sk- do not alliterate with one another or with s-. For example, spill alliterates with spit, sting with stick, skin with scandal, and sing with sleep, but those pairs do not alliterate with one another. In other consonant clusters the second consonant does not matter; for example, bring alliterates with blast and burn, or rather all three words alliterate with one another.[19]
    • Alliteration may also refer to the use of different but similar consonants,[20] often because the two sounds were identical in an earlier stage of the language.[21] For example, Middle English poems sometimes alliterate z with s (both originally s), or hard g with soft (fricative) g (the latter represented in some cases by the letter yogh – ȝ – pronounced like the y in yarrow or the j in Jotunheim).[22]
  2. Consonance is a broader literary device involving the repetition of consonant sounds at any point in a word (for example, coming home, hot foot).[23] Alliteration can then be seen as a special case of consonance where the repeated consonant sound opens the stressed syllable.[24]
  3. Head rhyme or initial rhyme involves the creation of alliterative phrases where each word literally starts with the same letter;[11] for example, "humble house", "potential power play",[12] "picture perfect", "money matters", "rocky road", or "quick question".[25][26] A familiar example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers".
  4. Symmetrical alliteration is a specialized form of alliteration which demonstrates parallelism or chiasmus. In symmetrical alliteration with chiasmus, 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, with chiasmus: "rust brown blazers rule"; with parallelism: "what in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims".[27] Symmetrical alliteration with chiasmus resembles palindromes in its use of symmetry.

Examples of use


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:[28]

Alliteration can also add to the mood of a poem. If a poet repeats soft, melodious sounds, a calm or dignified mood can result. If harsh, hard sounds are repeated, on the other hand, the mood can become tense or excited.[30] In this poem, alliteration of the s, l, and f sounds adds to a hushed, peaceful mood:

Examples from alliterative verse


Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado contains a well-known example of alliterative lyrics:[33]
"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!"[34]

Lines from other poems

Alliteration combined with rhyme

Music lyrics


Literary alliteration has been used in various spheres of public speaking and rhetoric. It can also be used as an artistic constraint in oratory to sway the audience to feel some type of urgency,[35] or another emotional effect. For example, S sounds can imply danger or make the audience feel as if they are being deceived.[36] Other sounds can likewise generate positive or negative responses.[37] Alliteration serves to "intensify any attitude being signified".[38]: 6–7 

An 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." — John F. Kennedy[39]

Examples of alliteration from public speeches

Translation can lose the emphasis developed by this device. For example, in the accepted Greek text of Luke 10:41[44] the repetition and extension of initial sound are noted as Jesus doubles Martha's name and adds an alliterative description: Μάρθα Μάρθα μεριμνᾷς (Martha, Martha, merimnas). This is lost in the English NKJ and NRS translations "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things."

See also


  1. ^ The original in Middle English was:[29]

    For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt
    Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach,
    As growe grene as þe gres and grener hit semed,
    Þen grene aumayl on golde glowande bryȝter.


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  3. ^ Travis, James (1942). "The Relations between Early Celtic and Early Germanic Alliteration". The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory. 17 (2): 99–105. doi:10.1080/19306962.1942.11786083. ISSN 0016-8890.
  4. ^ Salvador-Gimeno, Marina (2021-12-31). "Alliteration as a Rhythmic Device in Latin Literature: General Clarifications and Proposal for a New Vertical Variant, Alliteration Before or After the Caesura". Studia Metrica et Poetica. 8 (2): 80–107. doi:10.12697/smp.2021.8.2.05. ISSN 2346-691X.
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  12. ^ a b Crews 1977, p. 437.
  13. ^ Harmon 2012.
  14. ^ Thomson 1986.
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  16. ^ "Definition of Alliteration,". Archived from the original on 2013-07-03. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  17. ^ Scott, Fred Newton (December 1915). "Vowel Alliteration in Modern Poetry". Modern Language Notes. 30 (8): 233. doi:10.2307/2915831. ISSN 0149-6611.
  18. ^ Jakobson, Roman (1963). "On the so-called vowel alliteration in Germanic verse". STUF - Language Typology and Universals. 16 (1–4). doi:10.1524/stuf.1963.16.14.85. ISSN 2196-7148.
  19. ^ "Compressed Video Spatio-Temporal Segmentation", Encyclopedia of Multimedia, Boston, MA: Springer US, pp. 89–90, 2008, retrieved 2023-11-30
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  21. ^ Hanson, Kristin (2007-06-18). "Donka Minkova, Alliteration and sound change in Early English (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 101). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xix+400". Journal of Linguistics. 43 (2): 463–472. doi:10.1017/s0022226707004690. ISSN 0022-2267.
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  29. ^ Tolkien & Davis 1995.
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  32. ^ "Published Authors of Alliterative Verse". Forgotten Ground Regained. Retrieved 2023-11-29.
  33. ^ Wren 2006, p. 168.
  34. ^ The Mikado libretto, p. 16, Oliver Ditson Company
  35. ^ Bitzer, Lloyd (1968). "The Rhetorical Situation". Philosophy and Rhetoric.
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  37. ^ Team, N. F. I. (2022-03-04). "Alliteration - Everything You Need To Know". NFI. Retrieved 2023-10-24.
  38. ^ Lanham, Richard (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-520-27368-9.
  39. ^ "4 things that made JFK's Inaugural Address so effective".
  40. ^ "I Have A Dream Speech Analysis Lesson Plan". Flocabulary. 2012-01-11.
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  43. ^ "Greene called 'bleach blonde bad-built butch body' in House screaming match where 'drinking was involved'". 2024-05-17.
  44. ^ The Greek New Testament, 4th rev ed, ed. Kurt Aland, et al (Stuttgart: UBS, 1983), 247 n 7.