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Alliteration

September 5, 2013

I’ve been thinking, for no particular reason, about alliteration. English seems to be particularly rich in alliteration, in that we have lots of clusters of words with related meanings, all beginning with the same sound. No doubt it’s for this reason that Anglo-Saxon poetry was alliterative, not rhyming. Rhyme is an import from France and Italy; and despite the influence of French on English after the Norman Conquest, English is still much more difficult to rhyme in than those languages. That’s because we have more vowel sounds, and fewer silent letters at the ends of words.

But with alliteration, we’re playing at home. Consider such groups of alliterative and related words as: writhe, wriggle, wrestle; grip, grab, grasp; grunt, groan, grumble; shiver, shake, shimmy; twine, twist, twirl; strive, struggle, strength; mumble, mutter, moan; slip, slide, slither, slime; snore, snort, sniffle, snuffle.

Or think of that whole group of words which all refer to different types of light: gleam, glint, glitter, glisten, glimmer, glare. One might add gloom, and gloaming (the Scottish word for twilight); and glance and glimpse seem to have some relation to this group, too.

Speaking of light, it’s always struck me that many of the most fundamentally positive concepts in English begin with the letter l – light, love, luck, live, lunch, liberty – while many of the most fundamentally negative begin with d – dark, death, die, devil. Whenever I make this point to people they immediately shoot back exceptions (“What about lethal, then? And darling’?); and of course I agree that there are plenty of exceptions, but I still think it’s true that in general the l sound has much more positive connotations than the d sound in English. 

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