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What Is Sibilance?
Sibilance is the repetition of letter sounds that have a hushing or hissing quality. Think of the “s” sound that recurs in “uncertain rustling,” or the “sh” in “luscious shores.”
Linguists define sibilant sounds as those made by pushing air through closed teeth with the mouth open. This extends the definition of sibilance to include the consonant sounds at the beginning of words like “zeal”, “charm,” “genre,” and “jewel.” The “f,” “v,” and soft and hard “th” sounds in “foe,” “vamp,” “think,” and “there” are also sibilant.
The word “sibilance” comes from the Latin “sibilare,” meaning “to hiss” or “to whistle,” and is in itself an example of sibilance, since it contains repeated “s” sounds.
What Is the Difference Between Sibilance and Consonance, Assonance, Sibilance, and Alliteration?
Other literary devices are closely aligned with sibilance. For example:
- Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sounds in a line of text. Sibilance is actually a subset of this poetic device since sibilant sounds are always consonants.
- Assonance is like consonance, but it refers to the repetition of vowel sounds instead. Sibilant sounds are never assonant, since they do not involve vowels.
- Alliteration is the same sounds repeating at the start of words. Some instances of sibilance can be alliterative, such as “silver sea.”
- Onomatopoeia in poetry describes words that mimic the sound effect of the subject they refer to. Sibilance is often a form of onomatopoeia since it creates a hushing or hissing sound. Consider “silver sea” again—it is as if you can hear the rolling seafoam.
How Is Sibilance Used in Writing?
Writers harness sibilance for a number of different effects. The most potent is to enhance imagery in the mind’s eye of the reader or listener. The associated hissing “s” sounds might conjure the sound and movement of snakes, winds or steam engines; meanwhile, hushing “sh” or “zh” sounds might describe the rustling of leaves or the murmur of a crowd.
Sibilance is also used to create mood. Sibilant consonants have a whispering quality—the opposite to loud, intrusive letter sounds like “k”, “p,” or “t”—and can create a strong sense of atmosphere in writing. Think sombreness, sleepiness, sensuality, and closeness.
Writers also sometimes use sibilance to give their writing form and structure. As with assonance, consonance, and alliteration, sibilance adds rhythm and musicality to a piece of text by suggesting which syllables a reader should emphasize.
3 Examples of Sibilance in Literature
There are many great sibilance examples in English literature and poetry.
A good starting point is William Shakespeare. Take this dialogue from Hamlet:
Sit down a while
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story,
What we have two nights seen.
In this scene, Bernardo is entreating his fellow sentry, Francisco, to listen to his story about seeing the ghost of King Hamlet. The sibilance of the repeated “s” sounds has a twofold effect: the whispering sound serves to draw us closer, as if we are being told a story in a hushed voice, and it sets up a spooky atmosphere befitting a ghost story.
Another great example is in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845), a poem that is often cited for its use of sibilance as well as alliteration, consonance, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Writers often use these literary devices in combination, but rarely to the extent that Poe does:
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore
The melancholy tone of the second line’s relentless “s” sounds is notable here. The unusual word “surcease” packs in three repetitions alone.
Robert Frost’s poem “After Apple Picking” is also a good example of sibilance in action:
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
The poem’s speaker says that he is drowsing off, and we feel that he is by the repetition of sibilant consonants, which cast a sleepy calm over this passage.
Learn more about reading and writing poetry in Billy Collins’s MasterClass.