Are alliteration and dissonance considered mutually exclusive? My understanding is that alliteration means repetition of consonant sounds to make text flow more harmoniously, while dissonance means a combination of words that disrupts harmony. But what about a phrase like "Sweetly, slimily, and softly"?

To me, this seems both alliterative and dissonant, and I can't quite put my finger on what effect this has. Am I misunderstanding something about the concepts of alliteration and dissonance? Or is there another term for this kind of literary device?

  • 1
    Whatever you call it, I'm completely skeeving it, so the dissonant part certainly works! :) – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Feb 2 '17 at 17:11
  • Actually, it would appear, based on answers so far, that the question comes down to which textbook or dictionary you choose to look up "alliteration" in. So then you have to ask, if a passage achieves the effect that you desire, how much does it matter which academic terms are used to describe it. Remember, all these terms are descriptive, not prescriptive, and the world often turns out to be more complex than our descriptive categories can comprehend. – user16226 Feb 2 '17 at 21:58
  • I had to look up "skeeve" (found it) and dissonance (didn't find it). I understand dissonance in music, and cognitive dissonance -- but I doubt that's what you meant. You said dissonance disrupts harmony. What does that mean, though? Can you provide a link and/or a couple of examples? – aparente001 Feb 3 '17 at 1:57
  • Thank you. Tip: make sure the person you're responding to sees your response by including "@" and the username. – aparente001 Feb 3 '17 at 6:13

First, an alliteration is not a repetition of consonants, as Jason Baker has written, nor is it the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of consecutive words, as Mark Baker has written, but an alliteration is the repetition of the same sound (not letter) at the beginning of the stressed stem syllables of words (consecutive or not).

For example, "silken sad uncertain" (three /s/) in Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven is an alliteration, despite the "c" being a different letter and not at the beginning of the word, and "I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet" (three /st/) in Robert Frost's Acquainted with the Night is an alliteration as well, despite the non-alliterating "and".

The example by Robert Frost also shows that to say that an alliteration is the first sound in the stressed stem syllable is not quite correct, because it is the onset of that syllable. The onset is the first consonant or group of consonants (an onset cluster). (If the syllable starts with a vowel that is a "null onset".)

And that explains part of the dissonance in your example. "Sweetly slimily**, and softly" is not an alliteration, or not a pure alliteration.

The other part of the dissonance comes from "slimily" having three syllables and breaking the rhythm of the sequence. "Sweetly, softly, and slimily" flows a bit better, maybe, but the alliteration is still broken and incomplete.

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Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of consecutive words. It is not limited to consonants, and there is nothing in the definition that speaks to its purpose or effect. So, there is no conflict between the terms. You can be both alliterative and dissonant if you want to.

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