Sibilance is a device in which a hissing “s” sound is created as a result of using repeated soft consonants.  It is a specific type of alliteration.  While most frequently created by the use of ‘s’, it is also effective with ‘sh’ ‘z’ ‘x’ ‘ch’ and other similar letters and combinations.

Other techniques related to alliteration include assonance and consonance.

Why use Sibilance?

  • Creating a negative tone:  Sibilance is a frequently-used technique because it readily creates a negative tone or atmosphere.  Its use was particularly apparent in works by poets such as Shakespeare, where the ‘s’ sound was likened to the sound of a serpent.  The snake was very prominent in culture at the time through its association with power and evil and its role in the story of Adam and Eve, with a very religious audience acutely aware of the links.
  • Creating a musical effect:  This device can be used to develop repeated sounds and patterns, helping to create a musical tone or effect, particularly ‘soft’ sounds, which can add a subtle rhythm.
  • Onomatopoeia:  Onomatopoeia is where a word’s pronunciation is used to imitate sounds, specifically the sound that it describes. As such, sibilance is often linked to this technique in order to create various sounds related to animals or the environment.

Examples of the use of Sibilance

In the ode “To Autumn” by John Keats (English Romantic Verse) there are a number of examples of sibilance, used in order to create a musical effect.

This technique is present throughout the poem, and is designed to help mirror the soft sounds and ideas related to the season of autumn. In addition, it helps to bring rhythm to specific lines, such as the one below, in which there are various cases of sibilance to add emphasis to certain sections of the line (shown in bold italics).

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

‘The Deliverer’ (Poems of the Decade) by Tishani Doshi uses sibilance to help create a dark and negative tone.

The repeated ‘s’ sounds at the beginning of the following line creates a sense of danger and has negative connotations.  This would be very effective for a reader because ‘The Deliverer’ is an extremely dark poem, which deals with the abandonment of female children in India due to social/cultural preference for male children.

Sees how she’s passed”

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